MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — After college basketball wraps up its season in early April and a champion gets crowned, all 353 Division-I programs are already thinking about how they are going to be able to get a chance the following season to compete toward that same ultimate goal.
The only way to have a shot at college basketball’s crowned jewel is to be a part of the 68-team tournament that begins in mid-March.
Schools who play in the upper echelon conferences, have from November until their conference tournaments end in March to build a resume for the tournament committee to decide their fate.
But for a program like Robert Morris, who participates in the Northeast Conference, it just comes down to a weeklong, three-game tournament being your only opportunity to be dancing on Selection Sunday.
In Tuesday night’s NEC championship, No. 1 Robert Morris and No. 2 St. Francis University will play each other for the third time this season, with the winner receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, the regular-season record matters, as each team in the NEC has to be in the top eight in the league to qualify for the postseason, and the higher you are in the standings, the more home games you get to play, but regular-season dominance and quality wins don’t hold nearly as much weight.
Back in November, the Colonials lost six of their first seven games this season. At one point in conference play, they rattled off six wins in a row, before dropping three of the next four toward the end of February.
Currently, they have won three straight and won each of them differently. In the regular-season finale, they held St. Francis to just 68 points, after allowing 86 in the first meeting, two weeks prior. Then in the NEC quarterfinal against St. Francis College, they shot just 20.8 percent from 3 and missed four crucial free-throws in the final minutes while barely advancing to the semifinals with a 59-58 win. On Saturday, for a chance to play in the conference title, RMU came out of the gates with a significant amount of juice and routed LIU, 86-66, while five different Colonials scored in double-figures.
The plan is to keep things rolling, just as is.
“I think we just need to go out and play the way we play,” RMU guard Jon Williams said Monday. “We’ll be alright if we stick to our formula and the things we do. Just be confident and play free. … I talk about that a lot because when guys play free, we play our game. (We’re) not thinking about losing and the season being over.”
With one more game guaranteed, the top-seeded bunch from Moon Township are in the driver’s seat with a chance to win it all on their home-court in a brand-new arena. Toole, who’s now in his 10th season as RMU head coach, has had a great deal of success in home NEC Tournament games, but has also gone through the rigors of having to play postseason basketball on someone else’s home court. He own a 9-2 record at home and just a 3-7 record on the road in NEC tourney play.
“I’ve been on both ends of being the number one seed in a home situation,” Toole said. “You know you’d rather be at home than on the road. But you certainly know there’s going to be a great challenge with St. Francis. You know they’re going to be well prepared, and obviously, they’ve been in this game a couple of times themselves. Their core group of guys have been in this game a few times.”
St. Francis has made it this far in the tournament in two of the past three years. On the other hand, Robert Morris doesn’t have anyone on its current roster who was on the 2015 squad that won the conference tournament. The Red Flash haven’t won a championship game since 1991, while the Colonials have won three times since 2009.
“It’s indescribable,” Toole said of his experience of making the NCAA Tournament. “It’s a lifetime memory that you want everyone to experience. … We want these guys that work so hard every day to have that same kind of experience and be able to take that memory with them for the rest of their life.”
To be able to experience those feelings, Tuesday’s game is going to come down to how the players perform and the coach’s coach. The players will likely feel some more added pressure as the anticipation builds before tipoff. But being able to put those pressures behind you, or allow the pressure to make you perform at a higher level is what will separate the team who will celebrate once the final buzzer sounds.
“You want to make sure guys are able and capable of playing the way they’ve played all year long,” Toole said of the pressures of a championship game. “It’s one of the things we talk to guys about even, back in the summertime. The build is to work every day so that when you get in this environment, you’re prepared, and you can rely on your training and not all of a sudden have to reinvent the wheel.”
Robert Morris is preparing for an exceptional environment for this game. The hope is to have it looking like the first-ever game in the UPMC Events Center back in November when they sold the place out in a non-conference game against Pitt.
“(I expect the arena to be) sold out,” RMU leading scorer AJ Bramah said. “Loud, the energy’s up …