There doesn't seem to be a consensus favorite to win the NEC among the collective media outlets. Most believe the St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers have a slight advantage, but I don't think anyone would be shocked if the Robert Morris Colonials represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament or the St. Francis (PA) Red Flash.
I personally believe St. Francis (PA) has all the ingredients to win the NEC; I wrote as much here. While I am very excited that I'll be attending a game in Loretta, PA this season, a majority of my time will once again be spent inside the Sewall Center in Moon Twp., PA. The 'Chuck' isn't a state-of-the-art arena, but is home to one of my fondest basketball memories as a fan - Robert Morris defeating the Kentucky Wildcats in 2013.
This season, I'll be attending games both as a scout and as a writer, a combination that's a work in progress. With that said, I strongly believe I'll be covering games at the Sewall Center, in both roles, come March 2015. Here are my thoughts and observations as RMU prepares to open against the Mansfield Mountaineers tonight in an exhibition.
The Colonials are going to go as far as senior guard/forward Lucky Jones takes them, it's pretty much that simple. Will Robert Morris fans consistently see the Jones that averaged 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists during the team’s two NIT games? Or the Jones that finished the last four conferences games (non-NEC Tournament) with a combined 11-56 (19.6%) from the floor.
The rebounding and defensive will be there, but without last year’s conference POY, Karvel Anderson, Jones will have to provide consistent offense for a team that has a lot of unknowns on that end of the floor.
The 2010-2011 NBA season opened with the Boston Celtics defeating the Miami Heat, 88-80, in Boston. Afterwards, Celtic's point guard Rajon Rondo was asked ad nauseam about what he thought about the "Big 3" and the Heat. When finally asked if he thought Miami was the best team in the league, Rondo looked right at the reporter and said, "I think we are." Why is that relevant?
When I think about sophomore point guard Kavon Stewart, that's exactly what comes to mind, because he's an alpha dog. Stewart might not be one of the first point guards that comes to mind when looking over the conference, but in his mind, I bet he's thinking, "You'll see." That's just the way the guy is wired.
Stewart will be an All-NEC selection at some point if he finds a consistent jumper. But if he can just finish around the rim (with either hand), and convert more free throws, he'll help keep RMU in the top-3 of the conference standings all season.
I wouldn't expect senior guard Charles Oliver to make the same leap that Anderson did last season; that would be unfair to expect that of Oliver and diminish just how special a season Anderson had. That doesn't mean I don't think Oliver will be vastly improved. I fully expect to see him drive into the defense as opposed to always going baseline when run off the three-point line. He showed off his power dribbling and willingness to drive during the Pro-Am Summer League (yeah, I know).
If he can consistently drive the ball against NEC opponents, it will open up opportunities for junior forward Stephan Bennett to drift to either short corner for his patented 12-15 foot jumper. Will Bennett, or any Colonial, be able to score in the paint on a nightly basis? Bennett may get a putback every now and then, but I am sure head coach Andy Toole desires more than that.
Will junior forward Aaron Tate become more comfortable around the rim on the offensive end? Or will it be fellow junior forward Lionel Gomes, the transfer from Cloud City Community College? I expect the former to be a little more decisive with the ball and work himself into scoring position more, as to not have to rely on a bevy of pump fakes. The latter plays with infectious energy, but I didn't get a sense that he had a "spot" on the floor where he consistently could connect from during summer league (again, I know).
Senior guard David Appolon is a key defensive cog for Robert Morris. Every team with championship aspirations needs a guy like Appolon; he's kind of like Shane Battier, expect I am pretty sure Toole doesn't want him to take a lot of triples. He'll do all the dirty work and brings a lot of versatility on the defensive end.
Freshman guards Jafar Kinsey and Marcquise Reed will receive playing time provided they practice well. You can read my thoughts on them during the summer league, here. I have yet to see freshman forward Elijah Minnie play, but I've heard he has as much upside as any player on the roster. Fellow freshman forward Andre Frederick has very good size, but seems like a long-term investment and may redshirt.
Will Toole start the season man-to-man, or has he been trying to perfect his zone over the last few months? Looking at all the new faces, he has players that can potentially do either. The incumbents are well-versed in both, and the newcomers have the athleticism to slide laterally in man without fouling (obviously, up for referee's interpretation) and the length to occupy their spot in the zone. The rule changes implemented in regards to hand checking and perimeter/post defense are a big reason why Toole switched to zone last season.
I'd be surprised if he didn't give man-to-man a chance with a whole year of working in that environment under his belt. I am not sure what else to add here because Toole's resume speaks for itself. I expect RMU to be one of the best coached teams in the conference from top to bottom.
Barring a major injury, it's hard to envision the Colonials falling out of the top-4 in the conference standings, but anything can happen. The team has one of the best five players in the NEC in Jones, a few very promising young players, veteran leadership, and the reigning Coach of the Year in Toole. I am standing by my prediction that they'll finish third in the conference, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they represented the NEC in the NCAA Tournament in 2015.