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January 7, 2013

Introspective Toole searching for answers

No one word serves to properly describe Andrew Toole's mental state right now.

Perplexed. Dismayed. Baffled. Flummoxed. Angered. Introspective.

All work to some degree, but even Toole struggled to place into context how frustrated he is to see Robert Morris start 0-2 at home in league play for the first time in program history.

"I'm frustrated because I can't get through to them," Toole said Saturday night. "I can't figure out a way, and I consider myself to be of decent creative ability."

Robert Morris isn't losing because of a lack of talent or because of a litany of injuries. LIU Brooklyn, another favorite to win the Northeast Conference, is also unexpectedly 0-2. But the Blackbirds played their first two league games without Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasawere, C.J. Garner, and Troy Joseph. All except Boyd (out for the year with a knee injury) will be back next Thursday.

Robert Morris has no built in excuse. Instead, in its sixth season of using the system, Robert Morris has forgotten how to defend in Toole's aggressive, switch-heavy, man-to-man defense.

"I've got to figure out a way to get them to defend, because right now, it's embarrassing. And it's not losing," Toole said. "I'd take a loss if we'd just do some of the little things again that used to be important, that used to be trademarks of this team."

When Toole was an assistant under Mike Rice, Robert Morris became known as a physical, aggressive team. Since Toole took over, he's struggled to find non-conference home games because of that reputation. Saturday night, he said his team no longer reflects that reputation.

"We have boys right now. They get sad when they make mistakes. Usually, mature young men or mature human beings, when they make a mistake, they try to change it with more effort. We don't have that. We don't have an edge," Toole said. "It's entirely, 100 percent my fault. Teams are a reflection of their coach, and if a coach is soft, you're going to have a soft team. Right now we have a soft coach and a soft team."

With that pronouncement, Toole turned introspective.

"We haven't done a live rebounding drill probably since the second week of practice. We do rebounding drills with pads because I got soft. We get somebody hurt every time we do a rebounding drill. So I said, you know what they'll understand it. If they hit the pad, they'll get the idea down of going to track it down," Toole said. "Now we're completely non-physical. We're completely weak. We completely stop every time there's a shot. My first year, I wouldn't have cared. I really would not have cared one second. You fell down? Get somebody else up. By the time we got to the NEC championship game my first year, I think we had four and a half bodies."

Toole isn't alone in bemoaning his team's sudden ineptness on the defensive end.

ROBERT MORRIS +/-
One of the new ways to measure a player's impact on the court is with plus/minus. First developed for the NHL, it's now become commonplace in the NBA and is creeping into college basketball.

By no means is it a perfect stat, but it offers a glimpse into evaluating a player for more than just points, assists, turnovers, etc. With the aid of sites like StatSheet.com and Kenpom.com, ColonialsCorner has compiled each Robert Morris player's plus/minus average. This takes the total plus/minus number and divides it by the number of games each player has played, allowing it to account for injuries.

Velton Jones - plus-3.4
Mike McFadden - plus-3.1
Karvel Anderson - plus-2.6
Lucky Jones - plus-2.1
Coron Williams - plus-1.3
Russell Johnson - plus-0.9
Stephan Hawkins - minus-1.7
Anthony Myers-Pate - minus-2.2
David Appolon - minus-2.2
Vaughn Morgan - minus-5.2

A quick analysis: Velton Jones is understandably rated highly, partially because of his role as a scoring point guard and partially because he's usually sound defensively. Johnson is low for a fifth-year senior. Myers-Pate's issues this year are clearly not just on the offensive end, where he's lost his touch. The bench, in general, is abysmal for Robert Morris when it comes to protecting a lead or trying to rally.
"That's what Robert Morris basketball is based on, especially since Coach Toole got here. That's what we've tried to emphasize - defense, defense, defense. And right now we suck at it," senior Velton Jones said. "We'd keep teams to 40 points, 50 points, 60 points. We're not a team that goes out and scores 80 points and get victories. That's not what we do. That's not what Robert Morris basketball is. We have to play defense."

A cerebral coach, Toole mixes in analytics with his passionate approach. Few coaches have referenced it on a regular basis, but plus-minus is becoming a regularly accepted way to evaluate how a player is doing without looking at points scored or rebounds or assists. It tracks the on-court and off-court impact of a player. If a player's team is doing worse with him on the floor, it's not a good sign.

Toole referenced sophomore guard David Appolon's performance during the two games as an example, saying he played well Saturday but not Thursday.

"Thursday night he played 11 minutes and was minus-11. You can't win games like that," Toole said. "Vaughn Morgan is minus-6 points per game. That's three buckets!"

Toole said the bench, which included Appolon, Morgan, Stephan Hawkins, Anthony Myers-Pate, and Lucky Jones on Saturday, has been dreadful in that regard.

"Other than Lucky, the four guys that came off our bench tonight are negative for the season in plus/minus," Toole said. "Obviously plus-minus isn't the tell-all stat, but we have a dude or two a game that will be negative points the amount of minutes they play. How is that possible? You can't win games like that."

The starters aren't immune. Toole criticized Russell Johnson's ability to protect the basketball - "How many balls went through our hands the last two games?" - and Mike McFadden for not pulling down a defensive rebound against Central Connecticut State. Even Velton Jones, who scored 46 points in two games, and Lucky Jones, whose effort is rarely questioned, weren't spared.

"We roll the dice to see who's going to be there on what day. Thursday night Velton played the worst defensive game I've ever seen him play. That's your senior captain. First conference game of your senior year, you play the worst defensive game I've ever seen you play," Toole said. "Lucky tonight had 26 minutes, takes three shots. Sulks the entire game. This is big boy time. This is when you have to grow up."

Ultimately, Toole placed the blame for Robert Morris' start solely on his shoulders.

"It's my fault. It's completely my fault. We've become like Hollywood. We're worried about shooting and scoring. My first year, my first game we held a team to 30 points. Now we can't even hold a team under 45 percent shooting," he said. "We've got a prima donna for a coach and we've got a bunch of prima donnas running around out there masquerading as college basketball players."

Toole gave the indication that much would change on Monday when the team regroups for practice. He didn't outright say it, but even with his introspective press conference, he implied that "Hollywood" would cease to exist. For his part, Velton Jones said Robert Morris has to issue a response, beginning in practice and carrying over to the road trip to Fairleigh Dickinson and Monmouth.

"Gotta win those games. We're already in the hole, but if we go to Jersey and lose two more, we're in a deeper hole," Jones said. "We have to stop it, and it starts Monday in practice.

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

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