PROVIDENCE — A small, sly grin quickly formed on Ed Cooley’s face upon being asked about reaching out to members of the coaching fraternity with firsthand knowledge of Robert Morris University.
Venturing a guess based on his facial expression, the Providence head coach set some time aside over the weekend to put feelers out. If undertaking the quest of learning more about the Colonials is Cooley’s pleasure, a valuable resource is located just up the road.
Sharing insider information does come with a price, meaning it wouldn’t come as a great shock to learn that Bryant University head man Tim O’Shea hit up Cooley for tickets for Monday night’s second-round NIT contest at The Dunk between PC and Robert Morris. Call it a case of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” between two basketball lifers who cut their coaching teeth on the same Boston College staff for four seasons (1997-2001).
“We call our friends,” was as far as Cooley wished to go about tapping resources regarding Robert Morris. “We call the people we love.”
O’Shea knows exactly what’s in store for Cooley’s Friars. Bryant and Robert Morris are Northeast Conference brethren and staged two very entertaining contests during the regular season. Home-court advantage was a moot point with each side winning on the other’s floor. Bryant ruled the Jan. 3 meeting in Pittsburgh by an 84-77 count, while Robert Morris returned the favor 3 ½ weeks ago in Smithfield with a hard-fought 77-75 verdict that secured the NEC regular-season title.
Two items of note that jump out when analyzing RMU is that the team’s bread-and-butter is the three-point shot. The Colonials made 284 treys during the regular season, good for a fourth-place tie among Division I schools, and were on target 38 percent of the time. In two games against Bryant, Robert Morris converted 23-of-65 shots from beyond the arc.
While it’s easy to say that the Colonials are prolific marksmen and leave it at that, O’Shea noted that what allows coach Andy Toole’s club the freedom to fire away at a high rate is a hoops trait that is vastly coveted.
“They have really good quickness, which I think is the most important factor in basketball. You have quickness and three-point shooting, that’s a deadly combination,” notes O’Shea.
The Colonials feature incredible offensive balance with six players averaging between eight and 12 points. Five of the six key players in Toole’s rotation have the green light to shoot with those within the select company making between 34 and 78 3-balls.
Karvel Anderson tops the Colonials in scoring (12.3 ppg) and 3-pointers (78-for-180, good for 43.3 percent). Velton Jones is another backcourt piece who can score (10.8 ppg), facilitate (team-leading 5.9 assists) and defend (51 steals in 30 games).
“I think I voted Jones MVP of the league ahead of our own guys,” O’Shea said. “I like their team. They play really hard.”
Holding up against Providence’s frontcourt figures to pose a challenge for Robert Morris, which grabs 31.9 rebounds per outing with foes grabbing 33.2 boards. Then again, it should be noted that the Colonials are a respectable 13-9 when outrebounded.
“Any Big East school is going to present a school from the NEC with problems inside. Guys like (PC’s Kadeem Batts and LaDontae Henton) are a load to deal with,” O’Shea expressed. “(Robert Morris) contests the passing lanes and is very good in rotating and taking charges. They are well coached with a lot of athletic ability.”
In O’Shea’s eyes, Robert Morris has distinguished itself as a team that doesn’t unravel when the time comes to hit the road. The Colonials overcame a hostile and sold-out Chace Athletic Center on Bryant’s campus and went into a SEC barn on Dec. 20 and provided host Arkansas with fits before falling by five points. Likewise, RMU stayed by Xavier’s side for much of the way with late free throws paving the way in the Musketeers’ 61-59 home win back on Nov. 17.
Undoubtedly, RMU will venture into Providence armed with a swagger of uncanny proportions following last week’s 59-57 first-round NIT stunner of defending national champion Kentucky. The Colonials plan to make themselves feel quite at home as space at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center has been set aside for two busloads of fans along with the school’s band and cheerleaders.
“They’ve played a lot of teams like Providence and have done very well. They are not going to be intimidated when they walk into The Dunk and that’s why I think it should be an entertaining game,” said O’Shea. “One thing about the NEC is that you have to be tough. The travel we do and the venues we play in, it’s a super competitive league and usually you’re not playing before a packed house. You have to be mentally tough and Robert Morris is.”
Kris Dunn came to PC armed with the reputation as a silky smooth point guard with a knack of breaking down defenses and creating prime scoring opportunities for his teammates. Very quietly, the New Haven, Conn. product has emerged as a high-volume shiner of glass.
The nine rebounds snatched by the freshman Dunn in last Wednesday’s NIT win against Charlotte marked the fourth time in five games that he’s snared seven or more rebounds. Listed at 6-foot-3, the shifty Dunn has been asked to play closer to the rim where he can use his long arms to snare the pumpkin and trigger the Friars when they break in the opposite direction.
Given the size of 6-foot-1 Bryce Cotton and 6-foot-2 Vincent Council, Dunn understands why he’s being asked to get physical down low. For someone who is less than a year removed from major shoulder surgery, he’s answered the bell to average 4.8 boards, good for third most on the Friars.
“The coaches tell me to crash the boards, so they must think I’m one of the better rebounders,” said Dunn. “They’re always telling me to do the things that I do best, which is rebounding and bringing good energy. My natural ability to score will come with time, they say, but I just have to learn the game more.”
Amidst the glow of the Big East’s well-compensated television deal with Fox Sports, the question was raised regarding what happens to games that don’t appear on a Fox affiliate. Is the local market granted permission to televise, which in turn would pave the way for PC Friar conference games to remain in the hands of Cox Communications?
“I never got into the details of the sublicensing stuff, but I think every game except 20 will be aired on some Fox platform,” stated the Rev. Brian J. Shanley, the president of PC. “Potentially, those games could come to local television and we want to keep it in the local market, but I’m not sure if it’s going to affect the Cox deal.”
Under the “old” Big East’s TV agreement with ESPN, every league contest appeared on one of the network’s headlining channels (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU) or on ESPN-Plus, which is the feed Cox picked up.
“Cox has always been a tremendous supporter of all of our programs, so we’re going to do whatever we can to keep that relationship alive,” stated Bob Driscoll, PC’s athletic director.
RIM RATTLERS: The date for Monday’s PC-Robert Morris NIT clash is March 25. Season-wise, the last time the Friars played at such a late juncture was March 24, 2003. … The turnaround for Monday’s victor is a swift one with Wednesday marking an “Elite Eight” matchup at Baylor.