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January 27, 2014

RMU stressing that eight will be enough to contend

Andrew Toole wasn't even a year old when the television show "Eight Is Enough" wrapped up its run on ABC.

But he was exposed to the series enough to turn it into a pop culture reference point for his players to use a rallying cry. The series centered around parents handling life with eight children, who all have their own series of failures and successes in life. With a few twists and a little bit of modernization, it's the type of situation that Toole and his Robert Morris basketball team can relate to.

Toole went so far as to take an image of the ensemble cast and replace the actors' faces with the eight players who are currently suiting up for Robert Morris. It was a quest for some levity during some trying times for RMU, but it was also a message. They may be down six players because of injuries, personal reasons and suspensions, but that's still not an excuse.

The message seemed to resonate.

"With the eight guys we've got, we're going to go to war, no matter what," senior point guard Anthony Myers-Pate said after Saturday's 74-70 win over Wagner.

Robert Morris has won six straight games despite seemingly shedding players on a weekly basis. There is no timetable for any of them to return, whether it's Mike McFadden and Desjuan Newton deciding their futures or four players, including freshmen Britton Lee and Jeremiah Worthem, being reinstated from suspension.

Despite the losses, Robert Morris is playing some of its best basketball of the season and is 6-0 in the Northeast Conference for the first time in school history.

"The urgency went up, knowing that we're down guys," Myers-Pate said. "We want to keep this going for them."

There is still a brotherhood between the 14 players who opened the season with Robert Morris. Worthem, Lee, McFadden and Newton were in the stands Saturday, loudly encouraging their teammates.

"They're still our brothers. Whatever happened, happened. It takes nothing away from what we've been through throughout the whole year and in the preseason," senior guard Karvel Anderson said. "They're still family, no matter what. They're going to support us and we're going to support them no matter what happens."

In the six NEC games, Robert Morris has put together the most balanced effort in the league. They and Bryant are the only teams to have positive offensive to defensive efficiency ratings. Robert Morris is in the top half of the league in seven of nine offensive categories calculated by noted statistician Ken Pomeroy, and they are in the top half in six of nine defensive categories. Bryant's been just as good offensively, but tails off defensively.

"I think they've played very hard in the last two games, but I think that's the way they should play all the time. I don't think there's ever an excuse for the effort that you give," Toole said. "That was some of our frustration early in the year. There were times when I didn't think we were giving the proper amount of effort."

Perhaps it's a bit of a blessing, too, that Robert Morris was forced to abandon its trademark man-to-man defense for a 2-3 zone back in December. Robert Morris' defensive performances prior to the switch were abysmal. They've progressively gotten better, and Robert Morris is now second in the league in defensive efficiency.

"I think we're getting more comfortable in the zone defense, even though it sometimes drives me crazy," Toole said. "It's the best thing we have and I think our guys are getting more comfortable in some of the situations they're seeing."

The zone is still active and demanding for players, but it's less intense than RMU's man-to-man. Not that the players believe conditioning will be an issue moving forward.

"We do a whole lot of running during the offseason and even a whole lot of running during the season. Our legs are used to this," junior Lucky Jones said. "We go up and down every day in practice, and that's longer than 30-plus minutes. This is nothing. We just have to continue to take care of our bodies and continue to fight."

That fight is what Toole wants to see in every game. Early in the season, he pleaded with his team to show that they were locked in and focused. No team has finished with a perfect NEC record in the last 16 seasons. The only one to come close was Central Connecticut State (19-1) in 2001-02. Toole recognizes that, and he's more concerned that the effort stays the same.

"Is it going to continue this way? I don't know. I hope so. Are we going to continue to win every game in the NEC? Probably not. It doesn't happen that often," Toole said. "But the way we're playing and the effort they're giving, I like coaching this group. And I like the way they've come together and responded to the situation."

If that response stays the same, then whether it's eight, fourteen or somewhere in between, Robert Morris is confident it'll be in the mix at the end.

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

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