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January 30, 2012

RMU searching for answers to inconsistencies

Exasperation. Frustration. Disbelief. Befuddlement.

Any and all could describe Andy Toole when it comes to understand his basketball team's fragile mental state. It's an interesting position for a coach to be in, especially when his team has 16 wins with eight regular season games to go.

Some coaches would kill for that. Some players would kill to have 16 wins in January.

Welcome to the new culture at Robert Morris. Robert Morris is 16-7, 7-3 in Northeast Conference play. But where a weekend split against LIU Brooklyn and St. Francis (N.Y.) would have been satisfying in years past, it's not anymore. Not when the problems have little to do with physical challenges and everything to do with the gray matter between RMU's ears.

"It's hard, to them. Not to people that understand the circumstances and understand the opportunity that they have, that understand and are jealous of the privilege to play Division I college basketball," Toole said. "To other people that love the game and would die to be able to be on the floor to compete again, it doesn't seem very hard, but to certain guys it's a challenge."

Toole said the biggest evidence was in the walk-through practices prior to each game. Thursday morning before taking on LIU Brooklyn, Toole said the players were trying to be "teachers pets", jumping to answer questions when quizzed about the game plan, unable to contain their excitement.

Then Saturday, walk-through practice turned into Keystone Kops.

"The simplest little screen, and they run into each other. It's like, 'Okay, this is going to be a hard night," Toole said. "That's why I'm sometimes so pessimistic about our team. Whereas (the media watches) the game Thursday, but you don't deal with them Friday or in shoot-around (Saturday)."

No, but the mental lapses are evident enough even just with the games. Lijah Thompson and Mike McFadden combined for six defensive rebounds against taller LIU and just two against St. Francis (N.Y.). It had nothing to do with physicality and everything to do with focus.

"Really, if we want to get rebounds, we should put Russell (Johnson) in with his cast on or Lucky (Jones), because Lucky gets rebounds," Toole fumed. "Those guys don't rebound."

"One of the biggest plays of the game was when Jalen Cannon missed a lay-up and then got his own rebound with Lijah standing in front of him and then got a three-point play," he continued. "Those guys have to step up and play better. They have to be more consistent in their performance as bigs on the backboards, in the post."

Consistency is the issue across the board. Coron Williams and Velton Jones were a combined 10-for-40 from the field, as they often forced shots and looked to draw contact instead of finishing strong to the basket.

"It was everybody," Toole said. "I can't even say it was the young guys or the old guys."

So Toole is fishing for ways to improve his team's mental toughness, ways to make them more focused. But fighting through the mental roadblocks would appear to be a major challenge for Robert Morris.

"We have some guys that tell themselves that they're tired and sore, so they play tired and sore," Toole said. "They play with slow feet and slow brains and that's a really bad combination."

In some cases, it might be considered younger players hitting a wall. But this is the tenth game of the conference schedule. The pattern has been established. Thursdays and Saturdays are game days, and while there's a quick turnaround, there's plenty of time to adjust and take care of business before round two.

"If we're surprised that we play Thursday and Saturday, then we need to get blowup schedules and put them in our locker...If you can't figure out how to prepare yourself for those two days…I mean it's not like we went on the court and ran suicides on Friday," Toole said. "We do mental preparation, we walk through the stuff, try and do practice where it's the least amount of toll on their bodies. But you have to bring focus and concentration, and that's what we didn't have. That's what we're missing."

And this week, that's what Toole hopes to find.

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

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