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35 days ‘til opening day: The seemingly perfect coaching candidate tries to regroup at Robert Morris

NCAA Basketball: Robert Morris at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 10 couldn’t come soon enough.

As we slide through the final weeks before college basketball returns, we’ll look at one storyline about the upcoming season that lines up with the number of days until opening day. Keep coming back to see if we have the creativity and dedication to pull this off. No promises.

It’s Oct. 6 and we’re just 35 days from opening day.

Andy Toole shouldn’t still be the coach at Robert Morris.

He took over as a 29-year old in 2010, and kept up the momentum Mike Rice had started in his time in Moon Township. Over Toole’s first five seasons, the Colonials won 73 percent of their league games, notched two NEC regular season titles and made the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15. There was also RMU’s win at Rupp-less Kentucky in the 2013 NIT, giving Toole about the brightest March spotlight a coach can have outside of the big dance.

With his age and track record of dominating a league with balanced teams, Toole should’ve been long gone, right? The previous two RMU coaches — Rice (Rutgers) and Mark Schmidt (St. Bonaventure) — had found homes in larger leagues. There were rumors, like the Siena job that ultimately went to Jimmy Patsos in 2013, but Toole remains at RMU.

35 years ago the Colonials won the first of what would be three consecutive NEC regular season titles. Since then, RMU has been arguably the league’s most consistent program, with eight more regular season titles and eight NCAA Tournament appearances. Toole has contributed to that run of success, though the coach that seemed destined for somewhere else is now tasked with something he hasn’t fully done: a rebuild.

Few teams have been as ripped by transfers as the Colonials. This has contributed to a 17-19 league record over the past two seasons, and Toole was candid about the situation in an interview with SI earlier this year:

Robert Morris coach Andy Toole knows this all too well. In 2015, the Colonials reached the NCAA tournament and lost to Duke, 85-56, in the first round. The future looked bright, as underclassmen Rodney Pryor and Marcquise Reed combined for 45 points in that game. Two seasons later, Pryor is Georgetown’s leading scorer (18.0) and Reed a key rotation player at Clemson. Pryor left by graduate transfer last season and Reed by traditional transfer two years ago. Toole says his mindset has shifted from optimism to concern when a young player has a breakout game. “The first thing you are thinking is, ‘That’s great! But is it too great?” he says. “It’s not fair, but that’s the way your mind works.”

The beat went on this offseason. Four players transferred from RMU, including sophomore wing and leading scorer Isaiah Still (Iona, 15.7 PPG) and freshman center Braden Burke, who did enough to catch Tom Izzo’s eye as a preferred walk-on at Michigan State.

Like Pryor and Reed before them, Still and Burke could’ve been the cornerstones of the next contending RMU team. Instead, that falls on junior guard Matty McConnell (7.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG), sophomore guard Dachon Burke (7.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and eight newcomers. Two of the those will be freshman Jon Williams and his brother, Akron transfer Josh Williams, who averaged 20.9 minutes per game over two seasons with the Zips.

Toole seems to be embracing the situation.

“We’re going to be on the young side,” Toole said. “We’re going to be not the most experienced team, but I think there’s some excitement to that. There’s some newness to everybody, some energy to everybody, which is great.”

And what if Toole can build RMU back to the factor it’s used to being in the NEC? He’ll have then proven himself as a head coach in a multitude of situations. Couple that with the rash of transfers, which if anything has shown that he can either identify high-major talent others are missing, or develop lightly-regarded players into big-time contributors.

If that happens, Toole may finally get an opportunity that is worth leaving RMU.