Robert Morris in search of a shot at the NCAA brackets

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Robert Morris wants to be the next "Who the heck are they?" team.

With a victory tomorrow night in the Northeast Conference tournament championship against Mount St. Mary's, the Colonials just might earn that distinction.

A "Who the heck are they?" team can best be defined as a team that, when the NCAA brackets are unveiled Sunday night, a large portion of the viewing audience asks "who the heck are they?"

The Colonials want nothing more than to be that team.

The NCAA tournament has spawned many such teams.

For Colonials coach Mike Rice growing up (he is 40 now), his unknown team was Valparaiso, and then Gonzaga and Butler. Rice used a qualifier, saying, "obviously before Gonzaga and Butler got really good, though. I mean way back, when they were first elevating their profile."

Assistant coach Andrew Toole, 28, said when Valparaiso and Loyola Marymount flashed up on the brackets when he was little, he would, "wonder what those teams were all about, where they were from and everything about them."

Robert Morris junior guard Jimmy Langhurst might play against Fairleigh Dickinson now in the Northeast Conference, but when the 21-year-old was growing up in Willard, Ohio, the school in Teaneck, N.J., always intrigued him. Before practice yesterday, Langhurst said, "Fairleigh Dickinson was it for me. I was like, 'What kind of name is that for a school?' So they always got my attention on Selection Sunday."

Hampton University was that team for assistant coach Jimmy Martelli, 26, and he admits he'll never forget the March 2001 day the Pirates lost a large chunk of their obscurity when, as a 15 seed, they stunned No. 2 seed Iowa State and triumphantly carried coach Steve Merfeld off the floor.

From a visibility and recognition standpoint, Rice and the rest of the program understands precisely what winning tomorrow -- and subsequently earning a spot in the tournament field -- can do for a program of their size.

"It would be a great thing to have our university discussed nationally with those teams you always see on television," said Rice, whose program hasn't been to the tournament since 1992. "To think that Robert Morris has the chance to be discussed with UCLA or Pitt or Connecticut, not in terms of visibility, but in terms of that if we can win one more game, we are right there, in that same tournament, that means a lot to the people around here."

It definitely means a lot to university president Gregory Dell'Omo.

"Internally, just getting to this point, the conference championship, has created a lot of excitement with the faculty, staff and students and there is a pride throughout the whole university that they are, right now, part of something special in terms of what our men's basketball team has accomplished," he said.

"But if we are to take that next step, and we win this game, it will raise the profile of this university athletically and academically from a local, regional and even national standpoint. I can't explain what it would mean to me to see 'Robert Morris' on those brackets, I just can't adequately explain the pride I would feel for everyone involved."

A win would bring that "Who the heck are they?" effect, but it would also bring something to Rice's program that all smaller Division I schools strive for.

"If you are a low- to mid-major school, and you make it to the tournament, people definitely take a little different look at you, you are seen differently," Rice said. "It doesn't matter who you are."

Sunday, Robert Morris wants to be that team.

NEC title game

Matchup: Robert Morris (23-10, 15-3 Northeast Conference) vs. Mount St. Mary's (19-12, 12-6).

When: 8:30 p.m. tomorrow.

Where: Sewall Center.

TV: ESPN2.


Colin Dunlap can be reached at cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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