MOON TWP. – With an upcoming debut against Point Park on Saturday, the Robert Morris men’s basketball program’s highly anticipated inaugural season in the Horizon League is finally now on the horizon.
If one thing’s for certain, the program has been no stranger to unfavorable ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. First was the cancellation of the NCAA tournament last March that cost the Colonials an opportunity to compete on a national stage after rightfully claiming the Northeast Conference title. Then came a two-week pause of all basketball activities on Nov. 19 due to several positive COVID cases within the program, which forced them to cancel non-conference games against Central Michigan (Nov. 28) and Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 2).
The team was back at practice this week, and while a slight semblance of normalcy has returned, the unprecedented challenges of simultaneously navigating a season and a surging pandemic will still be here to stay.
“Guys are excited for the season,” said Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole. “They’ve been working as hard as they can work based on what we’re facing, but there’s a lot of stuff out of our control. I think the hard part is that the uncertainty doesn’t end. You get your team back and you get guys on the court, but you don’t know if (someone will test positive) against tomorrow. We’re talking to our guys a lot about appreciating every day that you’re out there.”
The Colonials were predicted to finish fourth in the Horizon League preseason polls, but there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty as it pertains to this year’s squad. There are a number of new faces who enter the program as intriguing prospects, yet are still unknown commodities. And then there’s also some particular returners from the 2019-20 NEC championship team that will look to make significant strides in terms of progression. Notable players to watch include:
Jon Williams, AJ Bramah, Charles Bain: The Colonials’three seniors will likely comprise 3/5ths of the starting lineup again. Williams, the team’s floor general at point guard, is the elder statesman of the group. He has started all 102 games of his career and will fill a key leadership role that his brother, Josh, held last season. Meanwhile, Bramah is undoubtedly the most talented player on the team from a physical ability standpoint. He brought great energy off the bench last season and emerged as a key component to the Colonials’ NEC tournament run. Bain, the program’s active leader in points (762) and rebounds (385) is an experienced and reliable piece in the frontcourt who best impacts the glass.
Dante Treacy: The reigning NEC tournament MVP will step into a larger role as a junior. After exploding onto the scene over the second half of last season, it still remains to be seen if he can maintain his high level of play as the Colonials face tougher conference competition. He shot 46 percent from the field over 33 starts in 2019-20, including 65 percent over the NEC tournament, and will be counted on to compensate for the loss of perimeter shooting from Josh Williams’ departure. Toole said he is also looking for Treacy to be more vocal in practice.
Cameron Wilbon: Wilbon missed all of last season due to injury, which was disappointing considering the high amount of potential he displayed in the summer leading up to it. However, he’s now fully back and healthy for his third year with the program and could fill an important role. Toole noted that Wilbon’s conditioning entering training camp wasn’t as strong as it had been in the past, but liked what he saw from the junior since the team returned to practice this week. Wilbon’s impact will be contingent upon his consistency. If he can put it all together, the 6’5 wing can be the team’s go-to perimeter defender who can guard multiple positions and rebound while still impacting the offensive end.
Enoch Cheeks, Trayden Williams, Kam Ferris, Pat Suemnick, Tyson Brown: These five freshmen will certainly experience some growing pains while transitioning to the Division I level, but still have an opportunity to step in and make an impact off the bench in Year 1. First and foremost are Cheeks and Williams, who have already put forth “some really bright days” in practice. Both are dynamic scorers with their playmaking ability around the rim. Ferris is a shooter who can serve as a perimeter threat if he’s aggressive — although smart — with his shot selection. He’ll need to embrace the defensive side of the game in order to earn significant minutes. Suemnick could earn a spot in the frontcourt rotation down the line, but for now, he’s still adapting to the system and pace of play. Brown, despite dealing with a few minor injuries, has shown signs of his ability to be active on the offensive end with a nice shooting touch with both his left and right hands.
Olisa Ngonadi: Ngonadi, a Nigerian native was the first player Toole mentioned when I asked him which players had stood out thus far. Ngonadi is a freakishly athletic rim protector but still extremely raw in his fundamentals and knowledge of the game. After all, he only first picked up a basketball at 15 years-old. The 6’9 forward struggled to see the court last season, appearing in seven games for a total of 29 minutes. However, with such a high ceiling, substantial progression from the sophomore would give the Colonials much-needed frontcourt depth and a strong defensive presence. Toole said the determining factor for Ngonadi’s role will continue to be his approach to practice.
Kahliel Spear: A transfer from Bucknell, Spear will sit out the 2020-21 season due to NCAA regulations. However, Toole said he has the ability to be a high-impact player if he can remain consistent and step out of his comfort zone with his work ethic on a daily basis.
After Point Park, Robert Morris will head to Morgantown for a matchup with No. 11 West Virginia on Dec. 9. A double-digit loss wouldn’t be a surprise, but the game will still serve purpose as an assessment opportunity for specific lineups, rotations and offensive/defensive sets before entering Horizon play. And while Bob Huggins doesn’t employ the ravaging full-court presses that earned the moniker “Press Virginia” at the same frequency these days, the Mountaineers will still be an exceedingly tall task nonetheless.
“Even if (West Virginia) isn’t guarding you full-court, they are still putting an incredible amount of pressure on you at all times with the way they deny the ball, their length and their ability to protect the rim,” said Toole. “They will try to disrupt every sense of timing that you have in your body, and so you’ve got to be able to battle through that. Their aggressiveness, size and strength is really unparalleled across the country.
“(Our players) are going to gain a real sense of what it’s all about. You won’t get away with shortcutting anything against West Virginia.”
But that, in and of itself, is a positive thing for an inexperienced team with so much to learn in such a limited amount of time. Because of COVID-19, this past Wednesday was the first time since Nov. 9 that the Colonials had more than 10 players at practice.
“These two games are huge opportunities to teach and help guys and understand our formula,” said Toole. “We’ll try to execute the best we can (against Point Park), which will be our first time on the court for 40 minutes as a team. Then, when you flip the spectrum and play against a top-15 team in the country, we’ll get to see if there was growth from Saturday to Wednesday. If there’s not, then we’ll be able to identify what went wrong and how we can get guys to understand what needs to be done.”
Robert Morris and Point Park will tip off at 6pm at the UPMC Events Center.