There are certain stages teams reach over the course of the college basketball season. By conference play, good teams are supposed to be at a place where they don't worry about their effort or their production. They know what they have and that it'll be there almost every game.
So the focus turns to the opponent. Who becomes the target to shut down? Which areas can be exploited?
Game 19: Quinnipiac
WHEN: January 19, 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: Charles L. Sewall Center
TV/RADIO: WPIT 730 AM (RMU Radio)
YAHOO! SPORTS RPI RANKINGS: Quinnipiac 253, Robert Morris 126
KENPOM RANKINGS: Quinnipiac 236, Robert Morris 133
PROJECTED QUINNIPIAC STARTERS:
F Jamee Jackson (6'7, 230, Sr.), F Ike Azotam (6'7, 235, Jr.), G Zaid Hearst (6'4, 213, So.), G Evan Conti (6'3, 200, So.), G Dave Johnson (5'10, 155, Sr.)
PROJECTED ROBERT MORRIS STARTERS: F Mike McFadden (6'8, 220, Jr.), F Russell Johnson (6'6, 180, RSr.), F Lucky Jones G Coron Williams 6'2, 170, RJr.), G Anthony Myers-Pate
Robert Morris' gaze is still inward. Though they'll scout opponents, much like they'll examine Quinnipiac for any flaws before Saturday, the Colonials are focused primarily on themselves. With poor play pushing Robert Morris off to a slow start in the Northeast Conference and now injuries hampering their lineup, RMU is zeroing in on climbing back to the top of the conference.
"We still have our mistakes, still have our problems and our breakdowns that we have," Russell Johnson said. "But we're starting to get back into it."
Robert Morris' latest twist to that focus is finding the ability to defend and shut teams down over 40 minutes despite not having Velton Jones (head) and Karvel Anderson (foot). Thursday night against Sacred Heart, Robert Morris allowed the Pioneers to shoot 47 percent from the floor but limited SHU to just 33 percent from beyond the arc to pull out a 66-62 win.
Johnson said in the absence of a vocal leader like Jones, he had to shift into a leadership role and push guys when things weren't going well.
"I'll take that one," he said. "Sometimes you just have to keep a smile on your face and can't get too angry or get other guys upset."
Head coach Andrew Toole was non-committal as to whether Jones or Anderson would be available Saturday night against Quinnipiac. Their absence, again, might force Robert Morris to keep their focus solely on controlling their play. Play defense to the best of their efffort; rebound the ball consistently on defense; limit mistakes and turnovers. After all, as Robert Morris proved Thursday, the Colonials don't need their two leading scorers if they let the offense come naturally. Four players scored in double figures despite Toole having to experiment with running plays for different people.
"Sometimes when you sit down and you have five guys sitting in front of you and you go, 'Okay, what play are we going to run?" Toole said. "You go, 'I'm not sure what play we're going to run because I'm not sure who we want to run it for.' That's something you're constantly playing with."
Eventually Robert Morris needs to turn the focus outward. The Colonials will need to be confident that their core elements of tight defense, strong rebounding, and smart basketball will be there every night. In the meantime, they can keep the focus inward with a backs-against-the-wall mentality and day-to-day approach that they hope can keep them climbing up the NEC ladder while they get healthy and back to the level of play they believe they provide.
"Sometimes when you lose a couple guys, I think there's kind of like a new challenge to it or twist to what you've got going on. I think in the short-term you can use that to your advantage," Toole said. "Obviously the longer those guys are out, the harder it is to continue to use that to your advantage. But in short stretches, I think you can really rally around that and be successful."
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at email@example.com.