PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Having travelled 4,000-plus miles in the opening week of the season and played four games, Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole was eager to have a few days of practice at home and a chance to build off the team’s first victory.
The Colonials were thumped by Ohio State and Grand Canyon to open the season, but showed improvement against San Diego despite faltering in the second half. Versus Duquesne, they made several plays late, specifically on the defensive end, to pick up their first victory. It was their most complete and balanced effort of the season, signaling further growth after a rocky start.
“I think we learned a lot about different guys, how much they’ve grown,” Toole said of his team’s first four games. “I think our team has started to understand a little bit of how you’ve got to play. I don’t think we’re fully there yet, and obviously that’s one of the biggest challenges every team faces—the consistent effort that you need.”
The Colonials return to action Friday, finishing out play in the Grand Canyon Classic in Little Rock, Arkansas. Robert Morris faces winless Norfolk State at 6 p.m. and squares off with the host Trojans Saturday at 4 p.m.
With a rotation primarily featuring six freshmen, Toole’s team has struggled to consistently put the ball in the basket through the first four games. The Colonials are averaging 61 points a contest and shooting only 36 percent from the field, including going 20-77 from long-range. Shot selection and hitting shots at a consistent clip have been an area of emphasis this week in practice.
“Obviously, continue to work on offensive execution and the ability to make some shots,” Toole said. “Sometimes the last thing that comes for young guys is their ability to make shots at this level. It’s just a different speed, and you’ve got to figure out when you’re open and when you’re not.”
In the their victory over their crosstown rivals, the Colonials had four players reach double-figures and all nine players that logged minutes scored, hinting they’re on the verge of breaking out.
Junior transfer Malik Petteway provided a big lift off the bench on Sunday, posting a double-double of 13 points and 14 rebounds in a season-high 26 minutes. Petteway, who transferred in from Northwest Florida State, missed a good chunk of the preseason due to injury, yet is quickly carving out a role for the Colonials after recording his second double-double in three games.
“I think you’re starting to see the player we think he’s capable of being,” Toole said of Petteway. “We knew he would be an aggressive rebounder. We know he could score in and around the basket. We just needed to make sure he adjusted quickly to this level.”
Petteway helped pace Robert Morris on the glass with eight offensive rebounds. As a team, the Colonials held a +15 advantage in offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Dukes, 49-32.
In addition to Petteway, sophomore Dachon Burke chipped in with a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds, and junior Matty McConnell bounced back from a scoreless outing against San Diego to notch 13 points. More importantly, McConnell and Burke were instrumental in holding the Dukes’ Mike Lewis II without a point.
“I thought both those guys, when I watched it live and when I went back and watched the film, their urgency level defensively was incredible,” Toole said of his two most experienced players. “Both of those guys really fought over every screen, they were alert, and they were as urgent as I’ve seen them.”
“I think those are things we want to consistently see out of those guys if we want to continue to get better and win games.”
Two games in two days proposes new challenges for the young Colonials, but Toole hopes his team’s inexperience is an advantage against Norfolk State and Little Rock.
“They want to get back on the court, they want to get back in games, and they want to compete,” Toole said. “I hope their youth will be a positive in this situation where they can kind of pick themselves up and bounce back to the next day and go compete.”
Norfolk State’s lineup mirrors the Colonials, with only one player 6-foot-8 or taller clocking significant minutes. The Spartans’ starting five features four guards, and all four are averaging 10 or more points. It’s the first meeting between the two schools.
Little Rock is still searching for its first win, too. The Trojans have seven players averaging more than six points a contest, but no one scores more than nine.
With a few extra days of practice leading up to this weekend’s games, the Colonials are taking upon themselves to put in the additional work to improve.
“Guys have not shied away from trying to get some extra work, which is a real positive,” Toole said. “And something I think we can build on.”
Robert Morris will remain on the road after wrapping up tournament play in Little Rock, traveling to Youngstown State next Wednesday for a mid-week matchup.
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