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November 29, 2011

Despite familiarity, RMU can't shake Pitt mystique

If there is one team that the Robert Morris Colonials should know inside and out, it's the University of Pittsburgh Panthers.

Robert Morris is Pitt, just the scale model version. The attention to detail, the intense switching on defense, the rigorous practices, the series of screens on offense, even the style of players they utilize. Could 6-foot-5 power forwards like Nasir Robinson and Lawrence Bridges flourish anywhere else but at Robert Morris and Pitt?

Yet to hear Andrew Toole tell it, the Colonials haven't gotten past the "Pitt mystique".

After all, the Colonials have played major conference opponents before. And under this recent coaching tree of Mike Rice and Toole, they've beaten Boston College out of the ACC and had Villanova on the wire in the NCAA Tournament.

But year after year, no matter how the Colonials have been playing, no matter how good they might end up being, no matter what Pitt's success rate has been, the Colonials can't beat the Panthers.

"I think it's more than we're playing a Big East team," Toole said. "I think the fact that it says P-I-T-T across their uniform, all of a sudden our guys bow down."

The great question is why. Robinson and Russell Johnson played alongside each other at Chester. Velton Jones, David Appolon, and Lijah Thompson played Philly high school ball with John Johnson. Lucky Jones came out of the same powerhouse St. Anthony's program as Lucky Jones.

The connections are deep and numerous. But every year, the Colonials turn into the youngster who still can't best their older brother.

"In the La Salle game, we were more focused. We'd just lost at the Palestra, our mindset was to come back and not lose at the Palestra twice in a row," Johnson said. "I guess we came out here and lost our focus and had a lot of breakdowns."

That much is clear. The miscues are mind-boggling. Velton Jones and Anthony Myers had several communication errors that Cameron Wright exploited when Jones stopped coming to the ball on passes. That's something Jones hasn't done more than once in a game since he was sitting out a year as a freshman. Yet he did it on multiple occasions against Pitt.

It can't just be the old, high school connections, can it? La Salle had a host of Philadelphia players and familiar faces, yet the Colonials' defense treated La Salle like the Explorers were the bane of RMU's existence.

"Against La Salle, we never stopped defending no matter how many shots we missed. We were shooting poorly, but one thing we never did was stop defending," Jones sad. "We followed our defensive formula for the whole game. This game, I don't think we did. I think we allowed our missing to affect our defenses."

The mental toughness this team normally has throughout most of a game wasn't there for the first half. They rallied and made it respectable in the second half, but that meant little to the Colonials.

"We have to make sure we're in the right mental mind frame," Toole said. "For whatever reason tonight, I don't think we were when the game started. We were almost surprised by the speed of it."

With his dander up, Toole launched into a couple soliloquies.

"I think if you're getting into a fight with a bear, you're not going to wait for him to hit you first, are you? You've gotta go and put him on his heels," he said. "You have to attack and be aggressive. If it doesn't work out, well guess what? You're getting mauled either away. At least you can get a couple of shots in."

Since he took over from Rice, Toole has had one major component to his recruiting wish list: Find players who hate to lose. At everything. Find the guys who won't let a teammate beat them in practice in any drill. That desire for competition and to win at anything and everything is the only way schools like Robert Morris can top major level programs and make a name for themselves. Gonzaga did it. Butler did it. Belmont's done it in the past. Xavier did it. Toole and Robert Morris want to build the program to those levels.

But that can't happen as long as the Colonials throw on the breaks every time they walk into the Peterson Events Center.

"When you're a competitor, it doesn't matter what it says on the jersey. You have to go and do your job and follow your formula and play your game," Toole said. "And then if you lose, you lose. But if you don't even do what you're capable of or expected to, then you don't even give yourself a chance at all."

What is perhaps most mind-boggling is that these same Colonials run with Pitt every summer. Coron Williams hesitated on shots against defenders that he coolly knocks down at the Greentree Sports Plex.

Sure, that's a summer league game. It's playground basketball. But if you've seen the same opponent since high school, see them every year, know their system inside and out, and can run with them and even be better than them at times on the same court in the summer, why does everything change when it actually counts?

Toole simply shrugged.

"I don't know. You figure it out," he said.

Until the Colonials do, they won't crack open the goose egg on their side of the 30-0 series record against Pitt.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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