Outlook: An overhauled roster (not necessarily by design) makes Robert Morris the biggest unknown of the NEC, although the safe bet is to call 2017-18 a rebuilding year with the goal of infiltrating the league’s middle tier should things break right.
Last year: 14-19 (9-9 NEC)
Who’s in: Jon Williams (PG), Leondre Washington (G), Taevon Ashmeade (G), Malik Petteway (PF), Xavier Williams (PF), Ronnie Gombe (PF), Chris Coalman (F), Koby Thomas (F), Charles Bain (PF)
Who’s out: Kavon Stewart (PG), Clive Allen (G), Isaiah Still (F), Aaron Tate (PF), Braden Burke (C), Billy Giles (PF), Roberto Mantovoni (PF), Lorenzon Wright (F)
Key Non-Conference Games: at Duquene (11/19/2017); vs Rider (12/6/2017); vs Drexel (12/10/2017)
During the first part of Andy Toole’s tenure as the Robert Morris coach, it was foolish and reckless to bet against the Colonials when it came to preseason predictions. Under Toole’s direction, Robert Morris won nearly three quarters of their NEC games in his first five seasons. Stop and think about that for a second. For every 3 games they won, they lost just one in return. That five-year stretch, which culminated with a NCAA tournament appearance and a First Four victory, was a remarkable feat.
Two seasons later, however, Toole’s program seems to be at a crossroads. No, I’m not saying the coach’s job is in jeopardy – Toole recently signed an extension that pays him through the 2020-21 season – yet his program has been decimated by premature transfers and dismissals. In other words, Robert Morris is essentially starting from scratch in Toole’s eighth season with Matt McConnell and Dachon Burke as the only returning Colonials who played meaningful minutes in Division I basketball last season. The roster returns a paltry 23.2% of their scoring, 23.9% of their rebounding and 21.0% of their assists. Sure, much of the NEC has been scaled back by stars vacating the league, but this is kind of getting ridiculous. Since 2012, 25 transfers have left Moon Township, which is tied for the fourth most in all of college basketball.
In a way though, this drastic roster turnover was likely needed after several tumultuous and stressful campaigns. The program had a productive ending last season after winning seven of their final ten games including a thriller at LIU Brooklyn in the NEC tournament quarterfinals, yet a personnel reset probably was sorely needed. It will allow Toole and his staff to mold the program back into the hard-nosed, tenacious outfit that was highly successful. Yes, it’s not ideal to add 10 newcomers in one offseason, but now there should be limited distractions and more buy-in from the players. At least that’s my “glass half full” view.
Before breaking down the roster, one of my favorite exercises is to dust off the old depth chart to see how the new lineup shakes out. I think most would agree projecting this lineup isn’t for the faint of heart, but here my educated guess after speaking with Toole in August:
- PG: Jon Williams, Leondre Washington
- G: McConnell, Taevon Ashmeade
- G: Burke, Chris Coalman
- PF: Malik Petteway, Koby Thomas
- PF: Xavier Williams, David Cole
Others: Ronnie Gombe, Charles Bain
Let’s start with the known pieces: Burke and McConnell return as two players who finished in KenPom’s top 60 nationally in steal rate, an impressive feat for any player, let alone underclassmen. Having these two opportunist defenders back gives the Colonials a respectable base to work with as Toole attempts to mold his newcomers into defensive stalwarts.
On the other end of the floor, McConnell was finally starting to exhibit the confidence necessary to succeed at the end of last season, as his six triples versus LIU Brooklyn were critical in upsetting the #2 seed. Burke may be one of the most athletic players in the NEC, therefore another offseason of preparation could work wonders as he attempts to improve upon a respectable 7.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 42.0% FG line.
The point guard position will be manned by two freshman, albeit two well recruited rookies in Williams and Washington. (Quick note, Williams’ brother Josh is also on the roster and will red-shirt after transferring from Akron) The younger Williams profiles more as a true floor general, whereas Washington possesses the natural ability to score. Both have the ability, and more importantly, the opportunity to emerge as standout rookies.
On the front line, the 6-8, 240 pound Petteway should be instantly productive at the four-spot, at least that’s the plan given his production previously at Northwest Florida State, a junior college institution. Cole , who went to the same high school as Jon Severe and Saint Francis U’s Malik Harmon, impressively lost 60 pounds during his red-shirt season. With improved fitness, Cole’s soft touch and big body could come in handy around the rim.
Xavier Williams and Gombe given Toole more depth down low, yet neither has been productive at the Division I level. Williams is a face-up five, whereas Gombe’s 6-8 frame should be physical enough to gobble up rebounds.
Throw in Taevon Ashmeade, a versatile, athletic and willing defender at the two and three, and Philly’s own Koby Thomas, an athletic freak who needs time to develop a perimeter game, and there are a lot of integrating pieces to work with if you’re Toole.
How will it all mesh together? Not even Toole and his staff know, nor will they know when the first jump ball commences in November. Best case: Robert Morris remains at the top of the conference in defensive efficiency (they gave up 100.4 points allowed per 100 possessions last season), McConnell, Burke and Petteway become top 20 players, Williams is steady as a freshman point guard and as a result the Colonials sneak into the top half of the conference as legitimate contenders.
Worse case: Toole struggles to get his group of newcomers to buy into a team-first mentality and the 2017-18 campaign becomes a grinding struggle from start to finish, where simply making the NEC tournament isn’t a sure thing.
This is not the type of prognosis you’re used to seeing with a Toole coached team, but given the turnover, it’s necessary at the moment. We’ll find out if he can coach this current roster up to a competitive status.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride. Ryan wrote all ten NEC previews as well as the Iona, Manhattan and St. Peter’s preview for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. Reserve your copy of the college basketball “bible” here.