Colonials look to rebound back to NCAA tournament

By Nick Buzzelli, Staff Writer

  After suffering a disappointing loss to Long Island University in the Northeast Conference championship game last year, the Robert Morris men’s basketball team is coming into this season with the hope of rebounding back into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the eighth time in school history.

  “It would have been special to be the first team in NEC history to go to the NCAA tournament three years in a row,” stated RMU head coach Andy Toole of last season’s loss to the Blackbirds. “Unfortunately we were unable to get the job done but it’s motivating us now as we prepare for the upcoming season.”

  Despite losing Gary Wallace to graduation and having junior guard Karon Abraham declared ineligible for violations of team and school regulations, RMU returns four of its top five scorers from last season’s squad and added six new players to the current roster.

  David Appolon, Keith Armstrong, Lucious “Lucky” Jones, Brandon Herman, Darren Washington and transfer student Mike McFadden round out Robert Morris’s roster and will join juniors Russell Johnson, Velton Jones, Lijah Thompson and lone senior Lawrence Bridges on the court during the 2011-2012 campaign.

  Darren Washington believes that it will take time for the freshmen players to become fully accustomed to the pace of college basketball. “It’s been a challenge for me personally because the speed of the game is much faster,” stated the native of Belleville, Michigan. “A lot of the other players are stronger so it’s something we need to work on.”

  Although the Colonials’ roster is a mix of freshmen and upperclassmen this year, many players have had experience playing at the division one level. Seven of Robert Morris’s thirteen players appeared in games for the Colonials last season and three were on the 2009-2010 squad that captured the conference title and nearly upset the Villanova Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

  According to Toole, McFadden, who won’t be eligible to play until December 17 because of NCAA transfer rules, should have an immediate impact on the Colonials whenever he gains eligibility.

  “Mike [McFadden] has done a really good job in the preseason and practices and is going to play a lot of minutes when he returns. He started 17 games as freshmen last season at Iona so he understands what playing at a high level of intensity is all about.”

  The Colonials begin the 2011-2012 season against Rider and Saint Peter’s before participating in the Philly Hoop Group Classic with La Salle, James Madison and Penn.

  The November 19 match against the Quakers will be Toole’s first game coaching against his former school. “It will be great to see people I haven’t seen in a while but my job is to prepare our team and our players to have the most successful college careers they can. If I can worry about our team, I won’t worry about coaching against my alma mater.”

  Although the Colonials play a tough non-conference schedule this year, against schools such as Pitt, Duquesne, Ohio and Memphis, Washington considers these matches a necessity in order to prepare for NEC play. “It doesn’t matter whether we win or lose the non-conference games, if we just compete it will help us down the stretch of the season,” said the 6-9 center. “It helps the freshmen adjust to the game in the long run.”

  Despite the fact that Robert Morris has made seven NCAA tournament appearances, no team in program history has advanced past the first round and Toole would like to be the first skipper to guide the university to an NCAA victory. “Being able to win a first round game would be incredible. I would love to do it for our guys because it is something that they would never forget,” Toole exclaimed. “I’ve been a part of it as a player and as an assistant and to be able to lead a team to the NCAA tournament as a head coach is something I can’t even imagine.”