In years past, Robert Morris men’s basketball has opened its season against fierce competition: Notre Dame, UCF, Kentucky, Ohio State and so on.
To commence the 2023-24 campaign, the Colonials visited the Cintas Center to take on Big East opponent, Xavier.
Oftentimes in these matchups within the opening week of the college basketball season, we see the Colonials hang around and then get put away but the superior team in the second half. On Monday, it was much of the same, but the first half showcased a lot to like and a potential glimpse of what to expect this season.
Three days later, the Colonials played NAIA Point Park in a buy game at the UPMC Center. Yes, the Colonials were without two of their starters in Justice Williams – a former four-star and LSU transfer – and Josh Corbin, but it illuminated a potential glaring issue that Andy Toole’s squad may face this year.
Point Park led for nearly 20 minutes and capitalized on poor ball management and shooting from the Colonials. RMU finally found its rhythm late it the contest to stage an all-important comeback to withstand what would have been a brutal upset in what was just an exhibition game for the Pioneers.
“We averted disaster tonight,” Toole said in his opening statement following the gutsy win.
As the Colonials avoided a meltdown, it was clear that the Colonials are going to have some depth issues this season. Without Williams and Corbin, the Colonials dug into its bench and the youth that is present on this year’s team.
Freshman Alfredo Boglio made his first collegiate start after registering 14 minutes in Monday’s loss to Xavier. Chris Ford, Alvaro Folgueiras, Ben Krystkowiak and Trey James all lugged minutes off the bench against the Pioneers.
Outside of Boglio, the latter four did not see extended minutes on the floor due to the circumstances that were unfolding within the game. As a collective, those five failed to make much of an impact when they appeared on the floor as they combined to make just two baskets on 12 attempts.
When Toole was asked whether or not he was impressed with the play from his bench, he did not mince words.
“Impressed is a strong statement,” Toole said with a sarcastic laugh.
While the minutes will certainly be limited for those guys once Williams and Corbin are inserted back in the lineup, it begs the thought of how fit the Colonials would be if they do lose a player for extended time.
“We need contributions from more,” Toole said. “That’s something we’ve been battling about a little bit in our practice settings.”
Although it’s been a small sample size through two games, Toole wants to have the luxury of lengthening his bench this season but has not seen enough to do that.
“Understanding how to execute your offense and defense to me is a nonnegotiable across the board,” Toole said. “We are continuing to talk about those things to some of those guys coming off the bench and we’re still getting some errors.”
Part of the mishaps may be attributed to the inexperience on the roster. A certain point in the contest against Point Park exemplified that.
“In the first half, I had an exchange with Alvaro where he didn’t call the ball screen and they got all the way downhill. I said, Alfredo’s saying you’re not calling the ball screen. He’s said, “he’s right.” I appreciate the honesty, but it’s important. He’s a freshman, but he’s got to be more consistent in his work habits on a daily basis.”
For Toole, he needs to see more of his players jumping at the opportunity to absorb everything they need to learn.
“Sometimes its not just spending the two hours at practice. If you need extra help in math, you go to the tutors. You don’t just go to the three class sessions you have that week and think you are going to ace the class.”
“That’s some of the stuff we’ve been talking to guys about. How are you utilizing your resources? Whether its watching film, being with coaches and doing whatever is necessary to prepare yourself to help the team the best you can.”
With any young team, the Colonials will have to be patient with what they have at their disposal off the bench.
One promising sign from its young core has been the quality play from sophomores Steph Walker and TJ Wainwright.
The 6-foot-7 Walker will start at the five all season long. He finished two rebounds short against Xavier to start the season with consecutive double-doubles. He tallied 14 points and pulled down 16 boards against the Pioneers.
For Wainwright, he’ll be seen as the sixth man off the bench this season as he did so against Xavier. In his first collegiate start for Wainwright, he put together a career-high 17 points and helped the Colonials claw back against the Pioneers for the victory.
With the departures of Kahliel Spear, Enoch Cheeks and Michael Green III, both Walker and Wainwright will be heavily relied upon to produce this season.
“Someone told me once that sophomore means wise fool,” Toole said. “Sometimes when you are a sophomore, you think you have it figured out. Steph was a starter for us last year. TJ has worked really hard to increase his role in our rotation.”
In game two of their sophomore seasons, it presented a chance to understand where both players currently stand for the Colonials as they are projected to see even more time on the floor this season.
“They’re learning,” Toole said. “Are you building yourself every day for that role and those responsibilities. They both have to be really good for us for the team we want to be.”
With the opportunity to work on different areas of its game against Point Park, Robert Morris was faced with reality of what this team may be. Depth is certainly a focal point this season, especially if they find themselves down a player or two.
It’s only the first week, but the Colonials will inevitably experience growing pains as the season moves along as they look to compete in the Horizon League yet again.