The past few weeks, Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said he was concerned about his team's defensive identity. He admitted, though, that the past three games have shown an improvement.
It's probably no coincidence that the past two contests have coincided with the return of forward Russell Johnson.
"Wednesday and Saturday were probably his two best overall games of the season in terms of his energy, his effort, his ability to just be involved in the action," Toole said of Johnson. "When he does that, he really helps our team."
It would be an understatement to say Johnson has been a little unlucky this season. He started the Colonials' first 11 games and averaged 9.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game over that stretch.
- Matchup: Bryant (2-24, 1-13 NEC) at Robert Morris (19-8, 10-4), 7 p.m. today, Sewall Center, Moon.
- Radio, Internet: WPIT-AM (730), rmucolonials.com.
- Robert Morris: Beat Saint Francis, 70-56, Saturday to extend winning streak to three games. ... Clinched an NEC tournament berth for the ninth consecutive year with win against Red Flash. ... Is 4-0 all time against Bryant, including an 84-53 victory earlier this season. ... Leading scorer Velton Jones (16.3 points per game) ranks in the top 10 in the NEC in scoring, assists and steals.
- Bryant: Lost to Sacred Heart, 72-46, Saturday. ... In the fourth and final year of the transitional period moving from Division II to Division I. ... Sophomore F Alex Francis leads the team with 17.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He had 16 points and 10 rebounds in Bryant's previous game.
- Hidden stat: The past nine games, Robert Morris point guards Velton Jones and Anthony Myers have 83 assists and 42 turnovers. The Colonials are 7-2 in that stretch.
In a game Dec. 20 against Hampton, though, Johnson broke his nose and missed all but 11 minutes. He started the next game but had to wear a plastic facemask for the next few contests and saw his scoring and rebounding averages dip.
The big blow came a few weeks later, after Robert Morris' loss Jan. 12 to Quinnipiac. Johnson noticed some discomfort in his right thumb, and it was determined that he had broken it two games earlier. The injury caused him to miss the team's next five contests.
He finally returned Jan. 2 against Wagner but played only 15 minutes before going out with an ankle injury. He missed the Colonials' next game but returned to the lineup Feb. 8 against Saint Francis. After Saturday's game, in which he had 10 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks, he proclaimed himself "99-percent" healthy.
"It feels great after all the injuries to be almost fully healthy, it feels good to be back out there running around and stuff," Johnson said.
Johnson hasn't started since the thumb injury but has provided a spark off the bench for the Colonials. In his two games since the ankle injury, he has averaged 23.5 minutes per game.
Johnson possesses some tools that make him unique on the Colonials' roster. He has a long wingspan and is arguably the most athletic player on the team.
"He adds a lot," senior forward Lawrence Bridges said. "He can rebound, score, defend. He can really do it all. He's got the most gifts on our team. I feel like he's one of the most talented guys on our team."
Toole said the reason for Johnson's success was that he stayed within his role, which is rebounding, defending and taking shots that are there for him. He noted that Johnson got in trouble earlier in the season when he tried to do things like break opponents down off the dribble, which isn't his strength. Saturday, he made 4 of 5 attempts from the field, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc.
"Pretty much the way he played Saturday is exactly what his role is," Toole said. "I think he knows that, and hopefully he understands how important he is in terms of our future success."
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.