RMU's Toole tries to refine excitement level

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When asked about the magnitude of his team playing host for a game against Kentucky, Robert Morris guard Velton Jones began to speak, noting that it would be great for the university and the program.

Then, for a moment, he paused.

"I mean, it's Kentucky," he said as a smile came across his face.

For Jones and many others, it doesn't take more to amplify a game's importance than by saying the Wildcats' name, one that is as synonymous with college basketball as any.

Scouting report

  • Matchup:

    Kentucky (21-11) vs. Robert Morris (23-10), National Invitation Tournament, first round, 7:30 p.m. today, Sewall Center.

  • TV, Radio, Internet:

    ESPN, WPIT-AM (730), rmucolonials.com.

  • Robert Morris:

    Coming off 69-60 loss March 9 vs. Mount St. Mary's in the Northeast Conference tournament semifinals. ... The loss prevented what would have been a season-high seven-game win streak. ... G Velton Jones is 43rd among Division I players in steal percentage. ... Making its first NIT appearance since 2008, when it lost to Syracuse.

  • Kentucky:

    Coming off 64-48 loss Friday to Vanderbilt in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament. ... Has lost three of its past four games and has not won a road game since losing star C Nerlens Noel Feb. 12 to a season-ending ACL tear. ... Is 18th among Division I teams in 2-point field goal percentage at .527.

  • Hidden stat:

    Kentucky is the first team since Louisville in the 1986-87 season to miss the NCAA tournament after being ranked in the top three in the preseason poll.

In a first-round National Invitation Tournament game with no shortage of odd story lines, the Colonials will look to make the most of the opportunity that strange circumstances has produced. Tickets for the game sold out Monday at the 3,000-seat Sewall Center.

Sunday night, Robert Morris coach Andy Toole compared the contest to the film "Rocky," in which club boxer Rocky Balboa gets a chance to fight world champion Apollo Creed.

On the surface, it's a comparison that makes sense, with the low-major Colonials (23-10) taking on the star-studded Wildcats (21-11), a team with a roster featuring a number of projected NBA draft picks.

But for all the attention the game is getting, Toole said that his players cannot make the most of the opportunity if they get overwhelmed by the moment.

"We have to make sure the excitement is at the right level, that it's an excitement about competing, an excitement about preparing, not an excitement about just standing next to some guy who's going to be on a trading card in the next 10 years, because that's not what it's about," he said.

The game represents a return home for Wildcats coach John Calipari.

He is known as one of the sport's pre-eminent coaches and recruiters, but before he began his career, Calipari grew up in Moon, attending high school a little less than a mile down University Boulevard from the Robert Morris campus. His grandmother once worked in the university's cafeteria.

This connection led some to believe that Calipari had a hand in determining Kentucky's road destination, but he said that all he did was agree a few weeks ago to playing a possible NIT game away from Rupp Arena, which will be an NCAA tournament site this week.

But that does not mean he does not know what the game could do for Robert Morris.

"Sometimes the [selection] committee says, 'Hey, Cal's from Pittsburgh, it'll be a good story,' " Calipari said Monday in a teleconference. "You don't know. I'll tell you, if I did have something to do with it, I would have said, 'Let's play Robert Morris at their place.' It'll be a great thing for them."

Robert Morris assistant coach Michael Byrnes played for Calipari for two seasons at Massachusetts and later worked there for him as a graduate assistant for one season.

The game provides Byrnes with a chance to sit on the opposite bench from one of his mentors, someone who even reminds him a bit of his current boss.

"You could tell right away he was very, very intelligent and he was going to be successful in this line of work," Byrnes said of Calipari. "I've compared Coach Toole the same exact way -- getting both of those guys [at this stage] in their career, knowing they're going to be successful."

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Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter: @craig_a_meyer.


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