Robert Morris is ready for a step up.
That was the message from president Chris Howard and athletic director Chris King about the school’s move from the Northeast Conference, which had housed RMU’s Division I athletics teams since 1981, to the Horizon League.
The Colonials are coming off a championship season in the NEC, earning their fourth NCAA Tournament bid since 2009 by capping the 2020 season with a victory in the NEC Tournament final at UPMC Events Center.
Now, they’ll be moving up in the world, to more challenging conference in the Horizon League.
“We just want to be able to come into the league and compete as well as we possibly can,” men’s basketball coach Andy Toole said on Tuesday. “It’s a challenge and it’s an opportunity.”
The challenge is obvious. A higher level of competition across the board, but particularly in basketball, where schools like Butler, Dayton, Loyola, Marquette, Saint Louis, Valparaiso and Xavier have made their names in the Horizon League before moving onward and upward to the likes of the Atlantic-10, Big East and Missouri Valley Conference. From 2005 to 2011, only seven conferences won a game in every NCAA Tournament: the Power Five, Big East and Horizon League.
“I think the NEC is a league that is not as respected for some of the teams and programs and players that are in it,” Toole said. “Obviously, this is a little bit of a step up.”
The latest round of departures has weakened the league somewhat. It was No. 22 in the country in average efficiency, according to KenPom.com, last year. But additions of RMU and Purdue-Fort Wayne will swell the ranks of the league back to 12 members for basketball.
The hope from RMU’s end is that a higher-profile league will result in the ability to attract greater talent and keep that talent in Red, White and Blue — something that was difficult in the bottom-of-the-barrel NEC.
“There’s a reason why we’re going to the Horizon League,” women’s basketball coach Charlie Buscaglia said. “It’s because we’ve had some great players and student athletes come through this program and Andy’s program. … Now I feel it’s just a different area of the country that we’re going to be able to extend to.”
“You hope it will continue to allow guys to continue to understand the opportunity they’ll have at Robert Morris University,” Toole said. “Playing in the Horizon League, with the media markets, obviously the relationship with ESPN … you hope you get the things that you’re looking for.”
RMU appeared on ESPN2 and ESPNU one time each in 2019-20, with another handful of games appearing on ESPN3. Now that will be the norm, with the Horizon League’s games carried either on ESPN’s linear networks or on ESPN Plus. The entire Horizon League tournament was carried on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU last season.
The reason for the interest from the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports broadcasting has to do with the makeup of the league. With teams in Chicago (3), Cleveland (19), Cincinnati (37), Detroit (14), Indianapolis (25), Milwaukee (35) and now Pittsburgh (24), the league has nine teams in the top 40 media markets in the country.
“We are excited about this next chapter, creating new rivalries and continuing the forward momentum of RMU athletics,” King said. “I’m confident RMU, located in one of the country’s most passionate sports cities, will not only be a strong and valued member of the conference athletically, but will also enhance the reputation of the conference through the addition of a national ranking institution with student-athletes who excel academically, athletically and in life.”