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January 18, 2012

RMU trying to build up mental fortitude

In amongst his usual colorful basketball-practice vocabulary, Andy Toole verbally harangued his team with a not-so-subtle phrase of the day.

Mental fortitude.

It's been the biggest challenge for Robert Morris, especially in their two conference losses. With 12 conference games left, Toole has thrown down a challenge to his players, who he considers physically talented enough to win the league but have shown an inconsistent ability to stay focused.

"It's just our breakdowns that kill us. We have to get stronger within our formula and what we do," Toole said after that practice this week. "That's why I yelled 'mental fortitude' for about 90 percent of the things that came out of my mouth today. That's what it is. There's no great difference athletically or physically from our older guys to our younger guys. It's their minds that are different."

So Toole is looking to close the gap by focusing on two elements. For his freshmen, it's all about progression. Toole said he recognizes that the freshmen won't have the same mental capacity for Division I basketball as the more experienced players, and he's fine with that.

"But I need our freshmen to start moving more in the right direction and start making fewer mistakes," he said. "I know they're not going to be perfect. They need to start making fewer mistakes and start being more reliable."

It's not just the rookies, though. Toole benched Velton Jones and Mike McFadden - and very well might have benched Russell Johnson had he not been hurt - for a lack of defensive intensity at the start of the Quinnipiac game.

"And even our older guys need to be more reliable. Because when you watch the game on Thursday, Mike, Russell, and Velton were three of our worst defenders to start the game," Toole said. "If they're not going to be reliable, well then guess what? Nobody's going to be."

So Toole has worked on building up Robert Morris' ability to focus and start strong on defense. He's still exploring additional lineup tweaks, but there's only so much that Toole is capable of reconfiguring on his own. After all, there's really no drill for mental preparation.

"And a lot of times it's an individual decision that you make," Toole said. "There are certain guys that you can kind of snap into and get some more focus, and a lot of time that's the older guys."

Robert Morris has slipped during conference play in two of its most notable statistic hallmarks: Field goal percentage defense and three-point field goal percentage defense. Overall, Robert Morris is second in the NEC by allowing teams to shoot 41.5 percent from the field. They're sixth against three-pointers, allowing teams to hit 36 percent of their treys.

But the numbers dip in conference play. Robert Morris drops to fourth in field goal percentage (42.4 percent) and is tied for last with Fairleigh Dickinson in three-point field goal percentage (41.8 percent). NEC teams are shooting a full five percent better from three-point range against RMU than non-conference opponents, suggesting that Robert Morris hasn't been as active and as aggressive in shutting down the league's top three-point shooters.

So Robert Morris has a challenge in front of itself. Toole believes this can still be a very good team, a championship caliber team, if it plays to the formula that they have had success with in the past. And it doesn't start next week against Long Island or in two weeks against Wagner or in a month against a potential NEC tournament foe.

It starts Thursday against the only NEC team without a win in conference play: Fairleigh Dickinson.

"It's not like we've been setting the world on fire, so we have to make sure we're focused and taking each game at a time," Toole said.

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

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