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Keeping the Bar High

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Twenty-two years. That is the amount of time that elapsed between wins in the NCAA Tournament for Robert Morris University.

The Colonials broke that drought in May when they defeated the University of North Florida, 81-77, in the First Four.

While RMU lost in the next game to Duke, the eventual National Champions, the win served as bench mark for a program that has seen consistent success under head coach Andy Toole. Toole has led Robert Morris to a 110-65 record, including marks of 65-23 in Northeastern Conference play and 5-5 in postseason play, since taking over for Mike Rice in 2010.

In reward for his performance, the 35-year-old coach received a two-year contract extension this past offseason that will keep him in Moon Township through the 2019-20 season.

“It’s great,” Toole said of his extension. “It’s a very fickle business we’re in.”

While he appreciates the trust that the administration has placed in him, he acknowledges that the team still has a long way to go entering the 2015-16 season, using the 85-56 Duke loss as an example. Losing two of its top scorers, Lucky Jones and Marcquise Reed, from a year ago won’t help either.

“Both of those guys had very good seasons for us,” Toole said.

Jones averaged 14.3 points per game and nearly 6 rebounds, and Reed, who transferred to Clemson, averaged 15.1 points per game while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.

Despite losing those two, the team will return starters in Rodney Pryor, Aaron Tate, Kavon Stewart and Elijah Minnie.

“They’re huge,” Toole said. “They kind of set the tone.”

Pryor appeared in all 35 games and led the team in points per game with 15.8, while Minnie averaged 6.8 points and 4.9 rebounds. Stewart led the team in assists with 4.6 per game from the point.

Tate’s biggest contribution is his leadership.

“Aaron is a quiet leader,” Toole said. “He sets a huge example every day.”

As important as the veterans will be, the incoming freshmen class could prove to be just as vital. In particular, Isaiah Still and Matty McConnell are two youngsters who are likely to see plenty of minutes.

Still, a 6-foot-6 guard out of Union Catholic in New Jersey, averaged nearly 20 points per game and 7.2 rebounds his senior year. Additionally, McConnell, brother of the Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J., led Chartiers Valley High School to the WPIAL Class AAA Championship last year while averaging nearly 30 points per game.

So far, Toole has liked what they’ve seen from the duo.

“Those guys have been impressive in the situations they’ve been in,” Toole said. “They’ve done a lot of things well on both ends of the court.”

As a whole, Toole likes the versatility that many of his players possess, as well as the sense of selflessness carried by the team. He and assistant coach Joe Gallo also pointed out the amount of length on the roster, which prompted Gallo to say that this team is the longest they’ve ever had top to bottom.

Gallo also said that the team has no shortage of offense.

“The biggest strength of team is that we have a lot guys with playmaking ability,” he said.

Toole, however, notes that the youth of the team causes him pause.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “The situations we’ve thrown them in, they’ve handled well.”Robert Morris Pryor

While youth also concerns Gallo, he expressed confidence in the group.

“We’ve got four returning starters, so I think we’ve got a good mix of youth and experience,” Gallo said.

In the end, Toole’s main goal is to win the NEC, which would be the third straight time the school has done so. That’s easier said than done, of cou

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