Robert Morris’ High Powered Offensive Attack is Back, But Why?

Defense has been synonymous with Robert Morris basketball since Andy Toole stepped foot on the Moon Township campus more than a decade ago.

His boss, Mike Rice, initially got the Colonials to buy into a tough, no nonsense mindset on the defensive end, leading to the turnover generating, highly efficient guarding attack everyone equates Robert Morris with these days. Since the 2007-08 campaign, the Colonials have always finished in the top 200 of Division I in defensive efficiency, quite a feat for a small mid-major school. And only one of those years, when Toole had to play zone strictly out of necessity due to injuries and defections, has Robert Morris been outside the top 100 in defensive turnover rate.

In other words, Robert Morris and defensive tenacity go hand and hand.

So what happens when Toole’s squad figures it out on the other end? Well, it was a half decade ago when Robert Morris was also a well-oiled machine scoring the basketball. Having that continuity on both ends is the reason why the Colonials were an absurd 75-27 in league play over his first five seasons as the head coach.

Year Offensive Efficiency KenPom/NEC Rank NEC Record
2010-11 103.2 172 / 2 14-7
2011-12 105.9 119 / 3 15-6
2012-13 105.1 130 / 3 15-5
2013-14 105.8 165 / 3 16-3
2014-15 103.1 197 / 1 15-6

It’s been offensive slog since that 2015 NEC tournament championship, mainly due to several high profile players transferring from Moon Township for bigger programs. Some worked out, some didn’t, but five seasons later Toole finally has built a roster that has the continuity needed to succeed on offense.

“Anytime you make shots it’s making any offense looks good, efficient (and) effective,” Toole said on Wednesday when asked if game planning is easier knowing this team’s strengths offensively. “I do think we have some guys that have played a lot of games and they’re a little bit more experienced in terms of handling different defenses and we’ve been in the same offensive style and system for years.”

After a choppy start that included a difficult non-conference slate, Robert Morris’ offense has been firing on all cylinders, scoring at least 1.03 points per possession (ppp) in six straight games. Over that time they’ve shot 55.3% from 2, 45.4% from 3, and have a pristine 118 assists to go against 74 turnovers (1.6 A/TO ratio). It’s offensive basketball at its finest and it’s safe to say this positive trend isn’t a flash in the pan. So let’s examine why Robert Morris is back to leading the NEC in offensive efficiency (118.9 points per 100 possessions!) through four league games.

Dante Treacy’s Insertion Into the Lineup

I highly recommend Chris Capella’s piece on Treacy. In there he examines the notable improvement the sophomore has made after what some would say was a mediocre freshman campaign. The point guard’s play in 2019-20 has been far from mediocre, as he’s currently a strong candidate for the NEC’s Most Improved Player award with averages of 8.6 ppg, 4.9 apg, 2.9 rpg to go along with a 2.0 A/TO ratio.

(Side note: I really enjoyed Glenn Sanabria’s take on Treacy here. Go to the 22:30 mark.)

Forgot the individual achievements though, it’s how Treacy has made the players around him better that’s been the most impressive feat.

“I think Jon (Williams) has benefited in sharing some of the ball handling responsibilities,” Toole said when talking about Treacy’s impact. “I think obviously him and A.J. (Bramah) have connected well with Dante able to find him on cuts and drop off opportunities and obviously he’s complimenting our shooting with Josh (Williams) and other guys.”

Over the past six games, five of them Robert Morris triumphs, Treacy has assisted Josh Williams on 11 of his 33 made 3s, while providing an assist to Bramah on 10 of his 31 2s. Overall, the guard has assisted 13 triples, 2 two-point jumpers and 16 baskets layups or dunks during the 5-1 stretch. In essence, Treacy has created scoring opportunities for his teammates at all three levels.

Here are some examples how Williams and Bramah have benefited. Treacy found his sharpshooter in transition:

Off an inbounds play:

And using his dribble penetration skills to set up Bramah for an easy dunk:

Most NEC guards see a progression from the freshman to sophomore season, yet Treacy’s has been more pronounced after de-committing from Army late in the summer of 2018 and signing with Robert Morris soon thereafter. He didn’t have the summer prior to get acclimated and spent much of his freshman year in Division I catching up. We are now seeing what a full offseason of strength training and shot taking (shooting 38.3% 3PT this season) has done to convert Treacy into an integral part of Toole’s rotation.

A.J. Bramah’s Versatility Helps Promote Free Flowing Basketball

While Treacy playing at a high level allows Toole to put two facilitators together – Jon Williams and Treacy have played together 40% of the time in the past five games – it’s the junior college newcomers in Bramah and Jalen Hawkins that have solidified the rotation. Their insertion, particularly Bramah, has make the Colonials that much more versatile one through eight.

Pertaining to Bramah, Toole has been pleased with the junior’s progression: “He’s somebody that you always have to pay attention to because he’s usually on the move and he’s making great instinctive plays,” he said of the forward, who’s averaging 11.5 ppg and 7.8 rpg in his inaugural Division I season. “He really finishes well around the basket as well as offensive rebounds so well. He puts pressure on the defense in an entirely different way that we haven’t had previously.”

Bramah’s versatility, in that he can guard multiple positions, run the floor in transition and find an open teammate out of the post has been invaluable, especially when Robert Morris carved up the Wagner zone to the tune of 94 points and 1.36 ppp last Saturday. Exhibit A as he set up Treacy:

He’s also an asset in the high post, here finding Yannis Mendy for the easy deuce:

Bramah is a high level athlete that does a number of things very well with an added bonus; he also gets to the free-throw line at a high clip (50.8 FTA/FGA, 134th nationally) and makes a respectable number of those attempts (68.9% FT).

High Level Shooting Opens Up the Floor for Better Opportunities

Josh Williams is currently playing at an All-NEC first team level, his 71.0% success rate on 31 threes in league play is unfathomable, yet he’s also been more careful with the basketball. He’s sliced his turnover rate from 18.9% to 13.3% as a senior and has clearly benefited from having two point guards on the floor, as well as a passing big man who’s eager to find him camped out behind the 3-point line.

Josh’s brother, Jon, has also seen an improvement in his perimeter scoring, shooting a career best 44.8% from behindthe arc as a junior. Williams, along with Treacy, has been more aggressive after a 2018-19 season that at times frustrated Toole because of their unselfish, pass-first mentality.

“Last year we were arguing with those guys to shoot more shots and be more aggressive on the offensive side,” Toole explained. “All summer, all fall we were talking to those guys all the time about being shot ready on every catch, being aggressive on your drives, and that would open up some of those opportunities that they’re comfortable making.”

Opponents can no longer give the point guards space protecting against the dribble drive now that Williams and Treacy are making those sagging defenders pay. And it’s created a double edged sword with Mendy, one of the league’s best post presences, having more room to operate in the low block. Mendy has been a little more efficient in his takes as a senior (58.5% 2PT) while playing more often (55% of the team’s minutes). Plus, he can move without the rock in his hands:

The offensive resurgence has occurred even with Charles Bain struggling to find his shot after an encouraging sophomore season. Toole is still giving him minutes, as he’s doing other things (13.3% assist rate and 8.9% offensive rebounding rate in league play) to help the Colonials create advantages and make winning plays. If he can start to make the perimeter shots he’s been draining in practice, then the rotation becomes seemingly unguardable.

Despite Bain’s struggles, Robert Morris is still 19th in Division I with a 38.1% 3-point percentage. The last time they shot that well as a program was during the aforementioned glory days, back when stars like Karvel Anderson, Marcquise Reed and Rodney Pryor would strike fear into their opponents with their long-range prowess.

There’s still a long way to go – more than three quarters of the NEC regular season to be exact – yet at the moment, Toole’s Colonials are trending in the right direction. If their offense can continue to produce at a high level, it would not surprise me to see a NEC tournament finals appearance in their future. They surely have the pieces to succeed.

3 thoughts on “Robert Morris’ High Powered Offensive Attack is Back, But Why?

  1. Another great piece, Ryan. Question for you: as an “older” school fan (going on 43), I’m confused by some of these newer stats and was wondering if you could shed some light or point me in the right direction. Are they all Kenpom stats? For example, offensive efficiency, whatever stat you referenced here: “he also gets to the free-throw line at a high clip (50.8 FTA/FGA, 134th nationally)”, turnover rate (is this just player posessions / TOs?), assist rate, rebounding rate…I think that’s it.

    Some of the “newer” stats look pretty self explanatory, but it’s the rates/percentges/efficiency type stuff that eludes me. I really enjoy learning about any better ways to capture performance so I can train my brain to use the traditional ones less often. I like how Kenpom separates 2PT% and 3PT% but am confused by assist % and block %. (as opposed to per game).

    1. It’s mostly KenPom stats that I’m referencing. Offensive and defensive efficiency are pretty simple – that’s just the amount of points scored per 100 possessions with a factor on the type of team they are playing. For others like TO Rate, assist rate, etc., KenPom explains that stuff here: https://kenpom.com/blog/help-with-team-page/

      Hope this helps!

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