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November 1, 2012

Success hinges on mental, not physical, for RMU

As college basketball teams inch toward their season openers, there are any number of questions facing their coaches. Is there enough depth? Who will step up as the go-to guy in crunch time? Is the frontcourt strong enough?

For Andy Toole and his Robert Morris Colonials, the questions are a little different. Sure, Toole is unsure about his overall depth, and he's going to have to be more creative with his big men now that Lijah Thompson is out. But when your team brings back four starters and plenty of experience from a 26-win season, the questions become much more specific.

And for Robert Morris, they become much more cerebral. Throughout Robert Morris' 26-win campaign in 2011-2012, Toole lamented his group's occasional lack of focus and mental discipline. It would seem that mental stability, not any physical concerns, would be the largest hurdle for Robert Morris in 2012-2013. So, Toole was asked, has anyone surprised him with their renewed focus?

“The answer is no,” Toole said with a wry smile. “No one has surprised me with their mental focus. A couple of them might have surprised me with their lack of mental focus. One of the things that we’ve been fighting is the presumption that because we had a good year last year we’re going to be anointed to have another good season. Things don’t work that way."

Every team has hiccups in the preseason. New guys are unsure of where to be or when to move to a certain spot. In Robert Morris' high-intensity, switch-heavy defense, communication takes on even more importance. Part of the problem last year was having five freshmen as an integral part of the rotation on a team with just one senior. This year, Toole's early laments aside, the sense is that an older team will emerge from their preseason hiccups sooner than last year.

"Having guys returning and less new guys than the year before, you can have actually more focus on guys and teach them more," senior forward Russell Johnson said. "Things are smoother. It’s coming along."

How Robert Morris handles the mental aspects of the game will severely influence the questions surrounding the physical aspects of their game. The first hurdle is dealing with Thompson's absence. The senior was projected to team up with Mike McFadden to provide size and athleticism down low.

"I would have loved to have those two. Lijah wasn’t healthy the entire year last year. To get him back healthy and in shape would have been incredible for us," Toole said. "But that’s not going to happen so we have to figure out a different way to go about things. It would have been a great one-two punch with those guys offensively as well as defensively."

The other direct impact Thompson's absence will have is on depth.

"We were excited as a staff and as a team that this was going to be the first year since I’ve been head coach where we have two guys at every position where we were really comfortable with," Toole said. "But like usual, as soon as you have a good plan, it gets blown up and you have to go to Plan B."

Through two seasons, Toole has shown a willingness to put any combination on the floor that plays well and plays the way he asks. If it's four guards, so be it. If it's with a big wing and two point guards, that's fine too. Though Toole surely would have mixed and matched, prior to Thompson's injury, Plan A was to have Johnson and Lucky Jones almost exclusively on the wing.

"In a perfect world, it would have been. We would have had two guys " at least " at each spot that we’d be able to rely on," Toole said. "Competition, a lot of times, is the greatest separator of all the stuff that we do...Now we’re going to have to be a little more creative."

Toole will come up with any number of combinations, ranging from Johnson and Jones playing at the 4-spot to guys like Vaughn Morgan and Stephan Hawkins play center with four guards. Toole refuses to pigeon-hole guys into positions and is far more concerned with ability.

“I think there’s some advantages to having Vaughn or Hawk in with four other guards," Toole said. "I think they have some ability to make 12-15 foot shots, they have the ability to put the ball on the floor with one or two dribbles and go by people.”

Figuring out those combinations is part of the preseason. But it's also a chance for Toole to test where guys are mentally. Can they jump to another spot on the floor and still know what they have to do defensively? Are they willing to put in the effort in practice to know not only their jobs, but everyone's, so that they can guide a teammate who might be lost? The answer to those questions, borne out over 31 games, will likely decide whether Robert Morris grabs another Northeast Conference title or not.

"Hopefully guys are understanding that you have to go through it or you’re not going to have the success you believe you will," Toole said.

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

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