SMITHFIELD, R.I. – Since Mike Rice took over at Robert Morris, the program has had nothing but success. The Colonials have won back-to-back regular season titles and could be on their way to a third in a row. There’s been a formula that he has stuck to all along, and it’s seen good success again this season as he works with a mix of freshmen and upperclassmen, although there have been bumps in the road. They came close to having another one on Saturday before some late defense bailed them out in a 52-42 win at Bryant.
Rice’s formula involves defense and having a bench. From the moment he had the job, developing a bench was paramount, so he worked guys into the rotation early in the season with the idea of being ready for later in the season. He doesn’t want his players wearing down from having to play too many minutes, especially at the defensive end, and the results thus far speak for themselves. The Colonials are 44-6 in Northeast Conference play in the two-plus seasons with Rice at the helm.
“It’s the way we play,” said Rice. “You play four minutes as hard as you can, and then get out, and then somebody plays as hard as they can. It helps us out at the end of the year maybe to grind somebody out.”
This year’s reserves average over 23 points per game and give the team a bench scoring edge of almost eight points per game. They go about eight deep solidly as a result and work a few other players in as well, and the win over Bryant was their tenth straight NEC win. It also shows in the team’s defensive statistics, as opponents shoot just 41.3 percent from the field against the Colonials and turn the ball over nearly 16 times per game. In NEC games, opponents shoot below 38 percent and turn it over more than 16 times per game. And all the while, their leader in minutes averages 26.3 per game.
The bench certainly helped last year, when the Colonials won the conference tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. A year earlier, a loss before the championship game made them the team with the most regular season wins in NIT history.
The Colonials are doing it this time around in part with freshmen guards, something that doesn’t happen often. They start redshirt freshman Velton Jones at the point and true freshman Karon Abraham at the shooting guard spot, although size-wise one would figure the other way around. Since moving into the starting lineup on December 30, Abraham is averaging over 15 points per game and shooting over 44 percent from long range. The team’s leading scorer, he has won the conference’s Rookie of the Week honors four times this season. Jones, for his part, has won the award once while starting most of the season, and although he struggled on Saturday he hit the Colonials’ only three-pointer of the game, a dagger with 1:20 left that basically sealed the game. Neither had their finest hour on Saturday, but players have off games and there are several explanations.
The Colonials left town a day early for a 12-hour bus ride to beat a snowstorm that hit the Pittsburgh area. The game was also the back end of a Thursday-Saturday trip, and was their fifth game in over a week. While they played five games in a shorter stretch from time to time in high school, those games were all in one spot or all within a short drive of one another. The five games in this stretch were played in five different gyms in five different cities.
“They’ve been so consistent in NEC play, so for them to not come through for us may be a thing of us playing Thusrday-Saturday-Monday-Thursday-Saturday,” Rice said of his young guards. “Maybe on that back end, maybe some of them have their legs taken from them a little bit.”
The Colonials have gone with the lineup of freshman guards in part out of necessity, as senior Jimmy Langhurst – who Rice described as “my perimeter rock” – suffered a season-ending knee injury in December. Langhurst was a steady player and a career 40.6 percent shooter from long range. While Abraham has certainly played well, he is still a freshman, as is Jones, and there’s always some acclimation to the college game that happens in that first year.
On the other end of the spectrum is the senior leadership the Colonials get from Rob Robinson, Dallas Green and Mezie Nwigwe in the starting lineup and Josiah Whitehead off the bench. Green is long and primarily gives them defense, while Nwigwe complements the young guards and Whitehead has been better of late. Rice especially singled out Robinson for Saturday’s game, as he was the only double-digit scorer for them with 12 points.
“You need those seniors who have been through it and don’t get nervous, who make those plays,” he said, adding about Robinson, “He’s had an up-and-down senior year, probably not had the numbers as good as he should have, but the last 8-10 games in all the leadership things, he’s really stepped forward.”
Rice’s formula certainly appears to be working, and he’s been able to juggle his mix of personnel with success thus far. Saturday’s game will look like an aberration, a game they had a chance to lose before the defense picked it up in the latter part of the second half. The important thing is that they won the game.