Robert Morris capitalizing on NIT win over Kentucky

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Karvel Anderson celebrates a win over Kentucky (AP)

All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

It was one of the more memorable and heartbreaking games of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Robert Morris, coached then by Mike Rice, had No. 2 seed Villanova on the ropes that Thursday afternoon in Providence leading for much of the game only to have the Wildcats eke out a 73-70 win in overtime. Color commentator Bill Raftery summed up the game perfectly following the gut-wrenching loss that left dynamite freshman point guard Karon Abraham motionless on the floor: “They only lost on the scoreboard, Vern.”

Much of the appeal of the NCAA Tournament is watching schools seldom heard of win a game and advance to the next round, and it looked like No. 15 seed Robert Morris was on their way to doing just that. Despite the deflating loss, the Colonials were becoming a household name in the NEC and mid-major basketball.

(MORE: Click here to read NBCSports.com’s NEC Preview)

Fast forward three years and the program is under new leadership with Andy Toole at the helm. While Robert Morris hasn’t been back to the NCAA Tournament since 2010, they’ve been to the postseason and won games two of the past three seasons. Toole would tell you there was already momentum building even before Rice took over as head coach in 2008. It began with Mark Schmidt, the current head coach at St. Bonaventure, the prior season as they went 26-8 and nearly upset Syracuse in the NIT. Up until this point, Robert Morris was buried in obscurity. They hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in nearly 20 years and many didn’t know much about the school and basketball program.

Toole told NBCSports.com by phone: “We were hitting wall after wall after wall in terms of people not knowing what Robert Morris and our basketball team was all about at that point in time. After going to the NCAA Tournament and almost beating Villanova, we started getting call backs; they had a point of reference after seeing us in the NCAA Tournament back to back years. That game legitimized us.”

While the Villanova game may have legitimized Robert Morris, it was their NIT win at home over Kentucky last season that placed them at the forefront of the college basketball world.


It was the perfect storm for Andy Toole and his program. On the heels of being upset in the NEC tournament by Mount St. Mary’s, Robert Morris was paired with Kentucky — the 2012 NCAA Champions — in the first round of the NIT. Since Rupp Arena was one of the eight venues for the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was forced to travel to Moon Township to play Robert Morris at Robert Morris. The game was played on a Tuesday night, which allowed for a nice buffer period in between Selection Sunday and the Thursday games. After their win over Kentucky, the talk all day Wednesday wasn’t about the NCAA Tournament, but rather the NIT. Again, it was the perfect storm.

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

“This year with the win against Kentucky, that put us on center stage for a few days because of some incredible timing and incredible circumstances. This was another perfect opportunity for people to learn about the program.”

It wasn’t long ago that Robert Morris was struggling to just have conversations with top recruits that they were targeting, but now that conversation is much easier to come by. Toole explained while the recent success and exposure doesn’t always lead to landing top-flight recruits, they are now in contention for them. “It doesn’t guarantee that we’re always going to get the recruits. We still have to do our due diligence to make sure we are targeting the right kids for our school and program, but we are at a starting point that is so much different than it was six years ago.

The exposure Robert Morris has generated on a national level since 2009 has helped to elevate the program to another level and, predictably, that is paying great dividends. Specifically, the geographical footprint that Toole and his staff are now recruiting from has vastly expanded.

“We are recruiting from a much wider geographic area. We were in Florida recruiting and people recognized us. We were recruiting a kid from Kansas and people recognized us. We have a kid on this year’s team (Desjuan Newton) who played junior college in Arizona and is originally from Seattle and he knew about the [Kentucky] game.”

The key now is to sustain the momentum that has been building since 2009, which will be no easy task as the NEC has steadily improved as a league. “You see a lot of young staffs in the NEC who are trying to make names for themselves. They’re really getting out there and recruiting, and maybe not taking the same old thought process of, ‘Well, we’re just a Northeast Conference school, that kids not going to want to come here.’ That’s not the case. I think you see that across the board and why the programs are getting better and better.”

While Toole has continued the momentum his predecessors Schmidt and Rice began, he has yet to win the NEC and advance to the NCAA Tournament. Nearly defeating Villanova in 2010 and beating Kentucky in 2013 may have been steps one and two. The next step is getting back to the NCAA Tournament and winning a game, something Robert Morris hasn’t accomplished in 30 years.

College Basketball Talk’s Top 25: Xavier, Syracuse, Texas A&M are big winners

AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.
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At this point in the season, I think it is still too early to solely base rankings off of on-the-court results. That’s why you’re going to find North Carolina higher in this poll than likely anywhere else on the internet. Until we see what the Tar Heels look like with Marcus Paige — which, mind you, could happen on Tuesday night when they host Maryland — I’m not sure I’m ready to drop them, even for a team that looks as good as Michigan State or Kansas.

The biggest risers of the week: Xavier and Syracuse, who both won big tournaments over the Thanksgiving holiday. They also both happened to knock off rivals in the process, as the Musketeers blew out Dayton while the Orange knocked off UConn.

1. Kentucky (6-0, LW: No. 1): Kentucky got a real scare over the weekend, as Tyler Ulis hyper-extended his elbow against South Florida. He appears to be just fine.

2. Maryland (6-0, LW: No. 2): The Terps have not looked great early on this season, but they’re going to get a real test on Tuesday when they visit UNC.

3. North Carolina (5-1, LW: No. 3): Here’s to hoping Marcus Paige is healthy when Maryland comes to visit this week.

4. Michigan State (7-0, LW: No. 4): Denzel Valentine has been sensational this season, but the most impressive part of Michigan State’s win over Providence on Sunday was that they did it while Valentine was in foul trouble and struggling to shoot the ball.

5. Kansas (4-1, LW: No. 6): The Jayhawks had a pretty good week. They won Maui, they blew out a good Vanderbilt team, Wayne Selden showed up and Cheick Diallo got eligible. I hope Bill Self bought some lottery tickets.

6. Villanova (6-0, LW: No. 5): I really like the Wildcats this year, I do, but I dropped them a spot for two reasons: 1. I thought Kansas was better entering the season and the Jayhawks looked terrific this week in Maui, before Cheick Diallo played, and 2. Villanova hasn’t beaten anyone of note yet. Next Monday they get Oklahoma. We’ll know then.

7. Iowa State (5-0, LW: No. 7): The Cyclones are 5-0 with wins over three high-major programs, but their best win may be the win over Chattanooga. I think we’ll really get a feel for how good this team next month, when, in a 12-day stretch, they get Iowa, Northern Iowa and Cincinnati on the road.

8. Oklahoma (4-0, LW: No. 8): The Sooners put a whooping on Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, the kind of performance that made it very clear Oklahoma is a contender this season and Wisconsin is not. Buddy Hield has been terrific, but so has big man Ryan Spangler.

9. Duke (6-1, LW: No. 10): The loss to Kentucky continues to look like the aberration in Duke’s early season schedule, as they rolled over Utah State and Yale this week. The big news: Luke Kennard has finally found his rhythm, as he scored 22 points and went 4-for-5 from the floor on Sunday.

10. Virginia (5-1, LW: No. 11): Virginia has won four straight since their loss at GW, scoring at least 80 points in every game and never giving up more than 66. It’s not the stiffest of competition, but it should go to show you (like I said at the time) that the loss at GW said more about GW than Virginia.

11. Xavier (7-0, LW: No. 21)
12. Purdue (6-0, LW: No. 15)
13. Vanderbilt (5-1, LW: No. 16)
14. Miami (5-1, LW: No. 9)
15. Syracuse (6-0, LW: UR)
16. Texas A&M (6-1, LW: UR)
17. Gonzaga (4-1, LW: No. 17)
18. Oregon (5-0, LW: No. 25)
19. Cincinnati (7-0, LW: No. 20)
20. Baylor (4-1, LW: No. 22)
21. Butler (4-1, LW: No. 23)
22. UConn (4-2, LW: No. 18)
23. Providence (6-1, LW: UR)
24. West Virginia (6-0, LW: UR)
25. SMU (4-0, LW: UR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Cal, No. 13 Arizona, No. 14 Indiana, No. 19 Notre Dame, No. 24 Wichita State

WEEKLY AWARDS: Denzel Valentine’s big week, Kansas makes a statement

Denzel Valentine
(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

In the title game of the Wooden Legacy, a game that was billed as a matchup between the two best players in college basketball — Valentine and Kris Dunn — Valentine was downright bad …

… by his standards. He finished with “just” 17 points, six assists and five boards. I say “just” because, in the previous two games of the tournament, the Spartan superstar averaged 30.5 points, 10.0 boards and 8.0 assists. He’s been, hands down, the best player in college basketball this season, and that didn’t change this week.


  • Ben Bentil, Providence: Kris Dunn is the guy that is going to get all the national praise, but it was Bentil’s emergence that was critical for the Friars. He averaged 21.7 points and 6.0 boards in three games in the Wooden Legacy, carrying PC when Dunn was battling foul issues.
  • Wayne Selden, Kansas: The highlight of Selden’s week was scoring 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the Maui title game win over No. 19 Vanderbilt. For the week, he averaged 19.3 points and shot 12-for-17 from three.
  • Justin Robinson, Monmouth: Robinson averaged 25.7 points in three games for Monmouth at the Advocare Invitational. The Hawks beat No. 17 Notre Dame and USC in the process, only losing to Dayton by three.
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Remember when Justin Jackson was struggling? He averaged 21.5 points, 9.0 boards and 5.0 assists in wins over Northwestern and Kansas State. That came on the heels of a 25-point performance in the loss at Northern Iowa.
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Ellenson notched three straight double-doubles for the Golden Eagles this week, which included 16 points and 11 boards in a win over Ben Simmons and LSU.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas headed out to Maui as a team that many weren’t really sure what to make of. They looked good against Michigan State for 30 minutes, then they blew that game as Denzel Valentine went bananas. They had as much depth as anyone in the country, but Brannen Greene was suspended, Cheick Diallo was ineligible and Wayne Selden was the most notable of a handful of talented players that had been somewhere between inconsistent and ineffective this year.

That all changed in Maui — well, other than Greene’s suspension — as Kansas rolled over Chaminade, UCLA and Vanderbilt to bring home the tournament title. Blowing out Chaminade was to be expected. But beating down a talented UCLA team? Dominating a very good Vanderbilt squad? That’s the Kansas we’ve been hoping to see show up for a few years now. The question is whether or not it’s sustainable, and at least on paper, it appears to be. Selden’s shooting percentages will come back to earth, but his raw numbers are less important than his confidence and aggressiveness. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are going to continue to take pressure off of each other in the back court. Perry Ellis isn’t going anywhere.

I questioned whether or not Kansas was truly one of the nation’s elite when the season started. I think they answered that question for me.


  • Xavier: The Musketeers not only won the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, they blew out in-state — and former Atlantic 10 — rival Dayton in the finals.
  • Syracuse: The Orange are going to be a factor in the ACC this season. How much? I don’t know. But after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis by knocking off No. 18 UConn and No. 25 Texas A&M, it’s clear they’re going to be involved all season.
  • Northeastern: The Huskies picked up a road win against No. 15 Miami on this buzzer-beating jumper.
  • Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans picked up their second huge road win of the year, going into Tulsa and knocking off the Golden Hurricane. They’re now 5-0 on the season, having also won at SDSU.
  • Tournament winners: West Virginia knocked off Richmond and San Diego State to bring home the Las Vegas Invitational title, No. 24 Cincinnati beat Nebraska and George Washington in the Barclays Center Classic and Marquette knocked off LSU and Arizona State to win the Legends Classic.


Tuesday: No. 2 Maryland at No. 9 North Carolina, 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday: Butler at No. 24 Cincinnati, 7:00 p.m.
Wednesday: Louisville at No. 3 Michigan State, 7:15 p.m.
Wednesday: No. 13 Indiana at No. 6 Duke, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday: No. 11 Arizona at No. 10 Gonzaga, 3:15 p.m.