Three weeks ago the Robert Morris season was thrown into turmoil. Four players were suspended, including some key contributors. It looks like the first place Colonials were just hanging on by a thread until one of the other challengers was ready to replace RMU atop the NEC standings.
Six games later it hasn’t quite worked out how everyone planned. The Colonials are 5-1 and sit comfortably atop the standings. How have they managed to survive? In the most Darwinian way possible, adapting. The school once known for its tough man-to-man defensive principles has embraced a zone defense.
It’s hard to play man defense when you only have eight players that can play in a game, especially with the new rules. In order to combat that Andy Toole and his staff have worked on implementing a 2-3 zone that has glimmers of the strategies employed by Jim Boeheim and the undefeated and top-ranked Syracuse Orange.
Of course, Toole hasn’t been coaching the zone for 45 years. But the trial by fire appears to be going alright.
“It’s been quite a learning process,” Toole said. “As we’ve been going through we’ve been kinda learning on the fly a little. Figuring out certain ways people are going to attack it and certain things we think they’re going to do and how to combat some of that stuff, but we’re kind of learning it together. Our guys have been great in allowing us to teach it. We’ve been trying to study as much film as we can and make sure we’re giving them the proper information.”
Most people when they hear “zone” think “passive.” This defense is anything but. Depending on the situation the bottom wing defenders in the 2-3 zone have the ability to come quite high up against shooters. The two at the top also have the ability to dig in deep an adjustment that appears to be designed to protect the past after Bryant’s Alex Francis went 12-19 from down low and scored 30 points in the Bulldogs’ three-point loss. Against St. Francis Brooklyn on Saturday the Colonials were incredibly conscious of where SFC’s star forward Jalen Cannon was on the court. Lucky Jones – typically a wing defender on the bottom of the zone – routinely shaded towards Cannon. SFC’s junior forward finished just 4-12 from the field.
Robert Morris also doesn’t have the height and length that Syracuse has to challenge in the post or cut off passing lanes. Instead the Colonials have employed some smart man-to-man principles to aggressively look for turnovers. LIU only committed seven on Thursday, but every single one seemed to lead to a fast break opportunity. Without Brent Jones on Saturday the Terriers committed 14 turnovers, which led to 25 points for the Colonials.
“Syracuse is big and long,” said SFC head coach Glenn Braica who faced the Orange at the Carrier Dome earlier this season. “These guys are smaller and quicker and scrappy. I think they do a good job getting back in transition and into it. I think they do a good job rebounding out of it, which a lot of teams don’t.”
Rebounding is one of the biggest keys for the Colonials. The one game they lost, a surprising 74-73 home defeat to Central Connecticut, the Blue Devils grabbed 43% of their misses. Those extra chances helped CCSU score 1.12 points per possession. Due to this fact, it’s imperative that RMU’s one true front court player, Stephan Hawkins, stay on the court as much as possible. Hawkins has been thrust into a more prominent role by the departure of Mike McFadden and the suspension of Jeremiah Worthem. He’s now the only Colonial over 6’5″. It’s caused some problems in the post.
“We have a thin front court,” Toole said. “When [Hawkins] gets in foul trouble it makes it even more interesting. I think what we try and do and what we talk to them about is having guys be as active as they can in that spot. Being proactive. Not allowing guys to get into their bodies and post them as hard, because once they get it down there they’re close so it’s hard not to foul at times.”
It can also cause problems for opponents. RMU takes care to make sure that Jones is on the wing instead of in the middle of the zone. (Aaron Tate takes Hawkins’ place underneath when necessary.) This allows the athletic junior forward room to operate in transition and also creates mismatches on the other end. Jones scored the Colonials’ first 11 points on Saturday against SFC and finished with 18 – all in the first half – due mostly to the Terriers’ inability to check him in transition.
The other way the Colonials are helping in the paint is by picking the right times to dig into the post. Anthony Myers-Pate disrupted LIU’s timing down low by doing exactly that on Thursday. Toole said that’s one of the biggest differences his players have had to adapt to during the change.
“In man-to-man there’s not as much gray area,” Toole said after Thursday’s game. “In the zone there’s a lot of gray area so the more you play it the more comfortable you get in terms of what people are going to do against it. Where you can cheat one way, where you can cheat another way and I thought tonight [Myers-Pate] made really good decisions about when he could go down there and the guy wouldn’t be expecting him to come down and dig. It’s sort of playing that fine line of when to go and when not to.”
The zone worked well enough this past weekend to help RMU earn its first road sweep of the Brooklyn schools since the 1999-2000 season. The Colonials allowed under 0.90 points per possession in both contests, mostly because neither LIU nor St. Francis could find the range from three. The two Brooklyn schools combined to shoot 9-36 (25%) from distance against the zone. Part of it was personnel and some was also RMU’s ability to get out and challenge the three with those high wings.
Still, there are holes in the Colonials’ defense. Athletic wings have an open opportunity to drive to the basket along the baseline, especially on the side opposite Lucky Jones. (Though good luck finding many of them in the NEC.) If a team has the personnel to put three three-point shooters on the floor instead of just one or two (Mount St. Mary’s comes to mind) there will be open looks because the Myers-Pate and Karvel Anderson will have to make difficult choices up top.
The defense will be quite vulnerable to random fluctuations from the three-point line. Though in the past six games the percentage of opponent attempts that were a three has actually dropped to 34%, which is below RMU’s season average.
“Obviously we don’t have the length and size so we kind of have to be more active and create the illusion of more size,” Toole said. “But when our guys are active and all working together it has been effective for us. It makes people have to think and when you think you slow down. It’s something that we’re continuing to get better at.”
Every defense though has its weak points. Right now the 2-3 has the smallest downside for the Colonials. It helps mitigate some foul trouble, or at least distributes it around, and protects Hawkins in the post. At 9-1 the Colonials, even with eight players, appear to be the front-runner for the NEC regular season title because they’ve not adapted, but thrived.