Expectations high for young Robert Morris squad
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Even with a roster that features one senior and five freshmen, Robert Morris coach Andy Toole won't have the luxury of lowered expectations in his second year at the helm.
Northeast Conference coaches picked Toole's squad to finish second in the preseason conference poll, and the Colonials received two first-place votes.
Robert Morris returns four of the five starters from last year's heartbreaking overtime loss to Long Island in the NEC championship game, having only guard Gary Wallace graduate.
The four returning starters -- senior Lawrence Bridges, redshirt junior Velton Jones, junior Lijah Thompson and redshirt sophomore Coron Williams -- and redshirt junior Russell Johnson and sophomore Anthony Myers likely will see the bulk of the playing time, especially early in the season.
Toole will try to carefully mix in a five-man freshman class that is still learning the Division I ropes. He was disappointed with the performance of his freshmen in Robert Morris' 76-70 exhibition win Monday against Wheeling Jesuit.
"Those guys, hopefully, by the time we get into full NEC play will be able to contribute and be able to provide us with a spark," Toole said. "Whether it's off the bench or if one of them can work their way into a starter's role."
The Colonials have an empty spot in their starting lineup because standout guard Karon Abraham was suspended for the season in May after his second alcohol-related offense in less than six months. Abraham, 19, was cited for underage drinking April 23, less than three weeks after entering a diversion program for a November DUI arrest.
Abraham averaged 13.9 points per game for the Colonials last season but missed the final five games, including Robert Morris' NEC tournament run, with a torn Achilles.
Williams stepped in down the stretch and averaged 15.6 points in the games Abraham missed.
"I worked a lot this summer, too," Williams said. "So my confidence is built, especially last year during our winning streak. That really helped me out a lot, taking on that role and carrying it on to this year, now."
While Jones is clearly the vocal leader and probably the best all-around player, Johnson might be the biggest factor in the team's success. He averaged 11 points per game last season, but struggled to perform consistently.
Johnson came off the bench in the exhibition game and led the team with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
"In a perfect world, I would love Russell or [freshman] Lucky [Jones] to be in that wing spot, starting, but one of them's got to come and steal it," Toole said.
"They've got to take it, and they've got to take it in practice as well as in the games.
"I think early on, we're going to see multiple lineups until we kind of get everything set and sorted out."
Sophomore forward Mike McFadden, who transferred from Iona, should be a factor as soon as he is eligible Dec. 19.
Robert Morris opens its season Friday against Rider, and has notable non-conference matchups against Pitt and Memphis before beginning NEC play in earnest in January.
It won't get much easier in the conference. The NEC boasted the 18th-best conference RPI in Division I last year, up from 29th in 2009-10.
"I think in the past, there were times you could get by just being a little bit more talented," Toole said. "Now, you've got to make sure your guys are prepared, make sure they're focused and make sure they're playing as hard as they can."
First Published November 6, 2011 12:00 am