At least in one regard, Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole is the best college basketball coach in the nation.
According to research by Jordan Sperber, based on data collected by the basketball statistics website KenPom.com dating back to 2002, Toole is the only coach in the country that has coached more than 50 “close games” and won more than 70 percent of them.
The researcher defines close games as games that finish with a five point or less score differential and used a minimum of 50 such games coached as a qualifier. Duquesne’s Keith Dambrot has won about 52 percent of his close games. Pitt’s Jeff Capel has won a little over 55 percent of his.
The next best coaches after Toole are Bill Self of Kansas, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Mark Few of Gonzaga, a trio of sure-fire Hall of Famers. Other big-name coaches above 60 percent include Brad Stevens, Archie Miller, Kelvin Sampson, Chris Mooney and Ed Cooley.
Toole, only 38 years old despite having already completed eight seasons at Robert Morris, was just as surprised as anyone else to find himself at the top of the list.
“I saw it on Twitter and I was curious to see where everybody stacks out,” Toole said to Pittsburgh Sports Now. “We’re all competitors. I started going through the graph and I couldn’t find myself. I didn’t know where I was at. One of my buddies had sent it to me, as well, as I was looking at it, and said, ‘Look towards the top.’
“I was just as surprised as anybody. I don’t think you really have a feel for how you perform in those situations, necessarily. I think you’re always trying to be as prepared as you can be and communicate well with your team and hope that your team can execute.”
Toole said what he believes has been one of his keys to success has been focusing on late-game scenarios in practice throughout the year. Unlike say, Self at Kansas, whose “Chop” play has gained national notoriety as a late-game winner, Toole doesn’t have a particular set or call that he likes to make toward the end of a game.
“I think sometimes you try to put them in some of those situations in practice and see how they respond,” he said. “To get a feel and understand and know your players is key, and what their strengths and their talents are. So I think those are the things that I look at when we’re in a practice setting.
“Maybe having them go through a situational game and not really coaching them and seeing if they can coach themselves and see what they default too. Then trying to keep that in your mind and get into a game and see if you can re-create that. Try and do something that they’ve done before so that they have some confidence.
“I try, in my scouting preparation, just try to see what works. You usually have a couple things that you like or actions that you look for and like, and then during scouting, see how somebody would defend that. I think sometimes, as well, even during the course of the game, if you can pick something up that they might not be as strong at defensively that might work in well with what you do, that’s an area where you might be able to create an advantage for yourself in a late game.
“There’s times where you have a set action that worked for you early in a game and you kind of put it in your pocket, and say ‘we’ll come back to this later.’”
Of course, in order for that to work, you have to have the players that are able to make the plays to win you the game.
“I think I’ve been fortunate to have guys that have been able to make plays,” Toole said. “I think a lot of times, at the end of the game, as much as coaches want to feel they have a great plan in place, sometimes it comes down to having a guy who can go out and make plays, get stops and execute the things on the floor. So I think it’s a combination of a lot of different things that allowed me and my staff to be where we were.”
So what will Toole do with his new-found knowledge that he’s the best clutch coach of the last 15 seasons?
“It’s a pretty cool thing, for sure. I think we’ll have to show it to the team and let them know that I have a clue what we’re doing sometimes.”