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February 26, 2013

RMU, Bryant poised for first place showdown

There is no such thing as an easy coaching job in college basketball, especially at the mid-major level.

Each job poses its own set of challenges and risks, from administrative intervention to finances to league depth to injuries.

Andy Toole and Tim O'Shea have each experienced their own set of challenges as head coaches in the Northeast Conference. On the surface, it seems like a fruitless comparison. After all, Toole took over a two-time defending NEC champion when his former boss Mike Rice left for Rutgers. O'Shea took over a program just beginning the transition to Division I. It's not even apples and oranges; it's apples and interstellar travel.

But coaches can commiserate pretty well when it comes to the variety of challenges in college basketball. Toole's challenges have centered around maintaining success for a group used to being on top.

"When you become successful, a lot of times most people's reaction is to relax," Toole said. "It's very hard to continue to stay on your toes and prepare the right way and maintain the focus."

Toole said he's had to instruct his team on how to play with a target on their chest.

"They really want to beat you," Toole said. "They have more motivation, extra motivation, to come out and play harder against you than they might against some other opponents. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way."

That's how Robert Morris learned that the NEC title wouldn't be handed to them on a platter. Bryant and Central Connecticut State went into the Sewall Center in early January and swept the Colonials, dropping RMU to the unfamiliar confines of winless and in last place in the conference.

Robert Morris rebounded to go 12-2 in the fourteen games since that opening weekend debacle. The Colonials are back in first place heading into the final weekend, far more familiar territory. Bryant, meanwhile, occupied first place for much of the time Robert Morris worked its way back up the standings.

It's a remarkable turnaround for a team that was one of the worst in college basketball last year.

"I think about how difficult it's been to maintain our success here and have trouble understanding how hard it would be to take a team that was 2-28 last year to a team that has (17) wins right now and is a (game) out of first," Toole said.

After its win over Sacred Heart Monday night, Bryant is firmly positioned behind Robert Morris. It makes the rematch Thursday night a game for the top seed in the NEC Tournament. If Robert Morris wins, it'll clinch the top spot no matter what happens Saturday against CCSU. If Bryant wins, Robert Morris would need to beat CCSU and have Bryant fall to St. Francis (Pa.) to create a potential tiebreaker scenario for first.

Pretty heady stuff for a Bryant team that's eligible for the NEC Tournament for the first time. Toole said O'Shea deserves the lion's share of the credit.

"Speaking to some of his assistants as they were going through the transition, a lot of them spoke about how he was the perfect guy to do it because he understood what he was getting into," Toole said. "He understood that it was going to take some time. He understood that it would be a three or a four year process to be where they wanted to be."

An infusion of new talent has helped. Columbia transfer Dyami Starks leads the team with 17.6 points per game. Fifth year senior Frankie Dobbs averages 13.6 points per game and 4.8 assists per game, while junior Alex Francis averages 17 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Dobbs and Francis are part of a core that have been around the losing and are now thriving with a winning program.

"Things change a lot when people get tired of the results, so I'm sure (O'Shea) has the attention of his whole team through the offseason, the summer, and the fall. Those guys are hungry to become successful," Toole said. "Bryant's one of the teams I really enjoy watching play because it seems they have great chemistry. They all understand what their role is and they excel in their role."

It's a recipe familiar to Robert Morris. The Colonials have built their program on defined roles, chemistry, and a culture of winning. It's also been a team that enjoys a chance to exact revenge. The opportunity for another regular season title, plus a little payback, will no doubt be at the forefront of Thursday's game.

"It actually seems like a chance to get them back. They caught us when we were out of whack, when weren't doing what we were supposed to do," senior Russell Johnson said. "Now we're rolling, we've bought into everything, so it's a good chance to see how this goes."

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

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