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.

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AP

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.

No. 23 Furman tops Charleston Southern 77-69, stays unbeaten

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — No. 23 Furman took another step in its remarkable early-season journey, one coach Bob Richey expects will benefit his team the rest of the way.

The perfect Paladins (11-0) used a late run to pull away from Charleston Southern for a 77-69 victory Tuesday night in their first-ever home game as a Top 25 team.

Richey felt the jitters of his young team before the game, the desire to show the home crowd their rise was legitimate.

“The fear of if we lose, does all this go away,” Richey said. “And I think that’s normal for a young player — ‘Man, we want to keep this going.'”

Noah Gurley scored 17 points, and Alex Hunter and Andrew Brown had 16 points apiece to lead Furman in a game where leading scorer Jordan Lyons had zero points.

“We’ve got to continue to keep our pulse on these players,” Richey said. “We’ve got to continue to help them out.”

So far, so good.

The Paladins have been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises with their school-record run to start the season — a stretch that included defeating defending national champs Villanova and a second Final Four team from last year in Loyola-Chicago.

It took a late charge to break away from the Buccaneers (4-5).

Charleston Southern trailed 54-52 on Dontrell Shuler’s layup with less than 10 minutes left. After that, the Paladins went on a 14-4 run. Tre Clark had four points during the surge and when Gurley nailed a 3-pointer with 5:51 to go, Furman was up 68-56.

Charleston Southern could not respond and college basketball’s feel-good story of the season remained on track.

Lyons, averaging 20.2 points a game, missed all seven of his shots.

Matt Rafferty had 14 points and 14 rebounds for Furman.

“We’ve got to stay even-keeled,” Hunter said. “That’s something we’ve been practicing every day.”

Deontaye Buskey and Duncan LeXander had 13 points each for Charleston Southern.

Buccaneers coach Barclay Radebaugh said his team made too many mistakes to hang in at the end.

“You can’t do that against a team like Furman,” he said.

Furman, which joined the AP Top 25 last week for the first time in school history, had to wait another week — and make it through road wins at Elon and South Carolina Upstate — before it could celebrate its achievement on its home court. And it looked like the Paladins would have plenty to cheer about after they used a 17-8 run midway through the opening period to build a 26-18 lead.

But Furman went cold after that, missing seven straight shots as the Buccaneers of the Big South Conference tightened things up.

BIG PICTURE

Charleston Southern: The Buccaneers are nearing the end of a brutal opening stretch with seven of their first 11 games on the road. Those have included losses at Florida, Middle Tennessee and Marquette. Charleston Southern’s run ends with games at North Florida and Clemson in the next week. Radebaugh hopes the time away from home toughens the Bucs for Big South play.

Furman: The Paladins looked edgy in their first home appearance as a ranked team. They looked ready to take charge with a 51-42 lead before helping Charleston Southern’s comeback with four straight turnovers. Furman probably won’t win many games where Lyons struggles as he did against the Bucs.

STREAKING PALADINS

Furman is off to its most consecutive wins since winning 11 in a row in 1979. That’s back when the Paladins were one of the Palmetto State’s most successful teams, going to six NCAA Tournaments between 1971 and 1980. Furman has not played in the tournament since then.

RICHEY’S START

Richey was grateful to Radebaugh, who hired Richey as a 23-year-old and gradually gave him control of the Bucs’ offense. “Without Barclay, I wouldn’t be here today,” Richey said.

UP NEXT

Charleston Southern is at North Florida on Saturday.

Furman finishes a two-game homestand by hosting UNC Wilmington on Saturday.

Penn ends No. 17 Villanova’s 25-game Big 5 winning streak with 78-75 victory

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Villanova’s 25-game Big 5 winning streak is over.

The 17th-ranked Wildcats fell to Penn, 78-75, at the Palestra on Tuesday to see its undefeated run among its Philadelphia counterparts come to an end after six years.

It’s also an end to the six-game winning streak coach Jay Wright’s team has enjoyed since losing back-to-back games to Michigan and Furman last month.

Issues persisted on the defensive end for the Wildcats as they fell on a night they shot 50 percent from the floor and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. The Quakers bested that by converting 51.1 percent of their shots overall and 43.8 percent of their 16 attempts from distance.

Villanova had put some distance between itself and the shellacking it took courtesy of Michigan and the OT lost to Furman, but it continues to be clear that while still a top-25 caliber team, Wright’s squad this year looks to be well short of the teams that celebrated national championships in 2016 and 2018. Eric Paschall was expected to step into the void from losing so many players to the NBA off last year’s title-winner, but he took just five shots against Penn and has been generally inconsistent all season. Five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly can’t even got on the floor. That leaves Collin Gillespie and Phil Booth, who combined for 39 points Tuesday, carrying a bigger burden than would be ideal.

The Wildcats are likely ultimately going to be fine – they lost to a good team Tuesday – but unless they can get more from especially Paschall it’s hard to see them elevating themselves to a Final Four contender.

That’s the weight of expectation after two titles in three years.

We knew the Big East championship wasn’t going to be Villanova’s to simply waltz to, but the top-half of the league continues to look incredibly tightly grouped together without mich separation.

Penn, meanwhile, looks a real threat in the Ivy, as was evident in the Quakers’ win over Miami last week. The win over Villanova only solidifies their status.

AJ Brodeur and Antonio Woods both scored 16 points against the ‘Cats as Penn led by as many as 12 points on the night, but still had to survive a Booth attempt from 3 at the buzzer to finally end Villanova’s supremacy over Big 5 hoops.

Iowa State could get Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young back this weekend

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It’s been sort of a bizarre start to the season for Iowa State. For starters, the Cyclones enter the season not coming off an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 2011 after a 14-18 campaign last season snapped a program-record six-straight tourney streak. Coach Steve Prohm then suspended two players, including preseason all-Big 12 honorable mention center Cameron Lard, for the month of November for rules violations. The Cyclones also lost starting big man Solomon Young to a groin injury and then star guard Lindell Wigginton to a sprained foot.

Despite all that, Iowa State started the season 7-1 (including two wins at the Maui Invitational) before a loss at rival Iowa last week.

Now with an 8-2 record and having not only survived November but largely thrived with a reduced roster, the Cyclones are nearing full strength.

Wigginton, who averaged 17 points and shot 40 percent from 3 as a freshman, and Young, a two-year starter, could return as soon as Saturday and almost assuredly before the Cyclones’ Big 12 opener against Oklahoma State on Jan. 2.

“It’s where we thought it would be the whole time,” Prohm said of the duo’s timeline Monday, according to the Ames Tribune. “When we do halfcourt live segments Wednesday, if everything stays status quo the way it is right now, they’ll be able to go in the halfcourt.

“Not up and down, but they’ll go live contact in the halfcourt, and then evaluate them from there. Whether they suit up or not on Saturday, I couldn’t give you an answer on that right now.”

Prohm said both players could be in uniform against Drake on Saturday, but would not necessarily be available for big minutes, if at all. Wigginton, who went through the NBA pre-draft process last spring before announcing his return the day of the NCAA deadline, is expected to nearly immediately return to a major role.

Young, though, will be an interesting case. The Cyclones’ frontcourt is a crowded one with Prohm seemingly committed to playing four guards extensively and current starter Michael Jacobson, a Nebraska transfer, averaging a surprising 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 62.4 percent from the floor. With Jacobson, Lard and Young all soon available, Prohm will have a juggling act for minutes or reconfigure his lineup to play big, with the former seeming more likely than the latter.

Mark Few: NCAA prez Mark Emmert ‘needs to step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions’

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Count Mark Few as one looking for the NCAA to shorten its timeline when it comes to potential discipline for schools ensnared by the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball.

The Gonzaga coach is also calling out NCAA president Mark Emmert by name in his plea to speed things along and make teams who may have violated NCAA rules accountable.

“I’m disappointed. I don’t think this is something the NCAA needs to take their time on,” Few said, according to Yahoo Sports. “There’s teams out here who are competing for Final Fours and national championships and they don’t need to stall this thing out.

“They need to make decisions and roll with it. I think that’s on Emmert. Emmert needs to step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions.”

Emmert said last week that schools who were implicated by the FBI’s investigation, including by information that was made public in October’s court proceedings that involved three guilty verdicts, would not face potential punishment until after this season with the NCAA investigation extending beyond the Final Four.

New NCAA rules allow it to use testimony and evidence presented in those trials, but how the NCAA will apply those rules – will it simply accept anything mentioned under oath? – remains unclear. The NCAA, though, has committed to handle things methodically, as it so often does to the frustration of many a coach. It’s not exactly surprising, though, that the NCAA is in no hurry to drop sanctions on prominent schools – programs like Kansas, Auburn, Creighton, LSU, Louisville and Miami – in the middle of a season. Such a move would dominate discussion of the sport and upend seasons in an unprecedented manner. Intraseason discipline, especially something like a postseason ban, against some of the country’s top programs would be almost guaranteed to invite ugly legal challenges.

It’s not exactly a courageous rationale, but it is pragmatic. It also is the least likely to affect the bottom line, which is usually the best spot to place your bet when trying to determine the NCAA’s course of action.

Providence guard to miss at least a month with foot injury

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Rough news for Providence on Tuesday morning, as the school announced that freshman guard A.J. Reeves will miss the next four-to-six weeks with an unspecified foot injury.

Reeves, a native of Roxbury, Ma., has averaged 14.2 points this season while shooting 45 percent from three. He’s been the best freshman in the Big East and one of the best weapons for a talented Friar team that has yet to truly figure themselves out.

“It’s unfortunate that A.J. has to go through this as he has been having a very productive start to his college career,” head coach Ed Cooley said. “However, he is a great person and will use this time to get better and he will continue to support the team.”