The team already has played 13 games this season but, for all intents and purposes, the Robert Morris men's basketball season begins today.
At first glance, it seems counterintuitive, but it's a reality for any mid- or low-major program such as the Colonials -- that is, the non-conference schedule means little in the grand scheme of a program's greatest goal.
The Northeast Conference, like most smaller conferences, almost always sends just one team to the NCAA tournament, so how well a team plays in the conference determines how successful its season ultimately is. That challenge begins today for Robert Morris against Bryant (7-4), with coaches and players alike understanding the magnitude of the next few months.
"It's definitely the most important part," Robert Morris guard Velton Jones said. "You want to try to win as many games as possible in non-conference, but in-conference is when it counts and really matters and what you try to do to get to your goals, which is the NCAA tournament."
Bryant (7-4) at Robert Morris (8-5), 7 p.m. today, Charles L. Sewall Center, Moon.
- Radio, Internet:
WPIT-AM (730), rmucolonials.com.
Coming off 80-79 victory Dec. 29 vs. Lehigh. ... Fifth year playing Division I basketball, with this season marking its best 11-game start to a season. ... G Dyami Starks leads all scorers with 16.9 points per game, making him one of three players averaging double digits in points. ... F Alex Francis is averaging 8.0 rebounds per game; no Robert Morris player is averaging more than 5.8 per game.
- Robert Morris:
Coming off 79-74 loss Dec. 20 at Arkansas. ... Loss to Arkansas snapped season-high five-game winning streak. ... Finished the non-conference schedule with the most wins of any Northeast Conference team. ... G Coron Williams has scored in double figures in four consecutive games, averaging 15.3 points per game in that span. ... Has won all five games against Bryant dating to 2008.
- Hidden stat:
Bryant has won seven non-conference games this season. In its previous four seasons since joining Division I, it won just five non-conference games combined.
When compared with football, many look at the college basketball regular season, which runs from early November until March, and see a diluted product in which games lack meaning, especially when 68 teams end up in the NCAA tournament.
In the NEC, however, conference play means a lot. Only eight of the 12 teams make the conference tournament, with games on the home court of the highest-seeded team. How important is that home-court advantage? Seven of the past 11 NEC teams to make the NCAA tournament won the conference regular season title, and no team that has finished lower than fourth in that same span reached the NCAA tournament.
"Eight of the last 11 teams that have hosted the championship game have won it," said Colonials coach Andy Toole. "So fighting for the opportunity to host your tournament or play as many home games as you can in that tournament is vital."
Robert Morris enters conference play after going 8-5 in non-conference. After a 1-3 start, the Colonials have won seven of their past nine games, including wins against Ohio, which returned all of its starters from last season's Sweet 16 team, and Duquesne.
Their record in non-conference play was the best of any NEC team and even though the Colonials were picked among the conference leaders entering the season, they are not ready to anoint themselves as the favorites.
"Honestly, we don't really try to get into that," Jones said. "We just try to go into practice every day, try to get better every day and let the results try to take care of themselves."
Guard Karvel Anderson, who transferred to Robert Morris from Glen Oaks Community College in Michigan, has yet to experience NEC play, but he's eager for it.
"Competing in this conference is one of the reasons why I came here, so I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "On paper, it may look like we're a favorite or something, but we practice like we're underdogs and we really feel like we can do something in this conference season. I'm looking forward to it and am excited about it, but I'm excited more about what we have the opportunity to do."
Wagner and Long Island also are expected to be among the NEC's upper echelon. Both have new coaches, though, and have struggled at times this season (a combined 10-11), albeit against schedules featuring the likes of Syracuse, Kentucky, Maryland and Temple.
LIU was delivered a tough blow when forward Julian Boyd, the team's leading returning scorer and reigning NEC player of the year, tore a ligament in his right knee, an injury that will force him to miss the rest of the season. In the three games since Boyd's injury, the Blackbirds went 1-2 and averaged 66.7 points per game, down from their average of 80.4 points per game with Boyd.
Even with one of its toughest competitors hobbled, Toole and his team know that in a conference of this depth, several teams will be in the thick of the championship hunt.
"There's been a number of teams that have had the ability to win our league, whether it's been Quinnipiac or Wagner, ourselves or Central Connecticut in past years, as well as LIU; St. Francis [N.Y.] had a great year last year," Toole said. "There's a lot of teams that have the ability to get hot and win games. ... You have to go out and you have to make sure that you're ready for each and every game because they're all vitally important."mobilehome - rmusports
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter: @craig_a_meyer.