Robert Morris coach Mike Rice said he loves playing Pitt. He just hates doing it in February.
Tonight's matchup between the Panthers and the Colonials won't happen next year if it's in the middle of Robert Morris' conference season, Rice said Saturday night.
While Pitt has an off date from Big East play, the Colonials get no break from their Northeast Conference schedule. Robert Morris will play two NEC opponents this week on top of today's game at the Petersen Events Center.
"We understand some of the finances on why we need to do it," Rice said Tuesday. "It's a guarantee game. It's a game our students and alumni and fans like to play because they like to see what we can do. But it just can't take away from our next two opponents."
Last year, it didn't. After a 20-point loss to Pitt, Robert Morris won its next four games, including two on the road in the same week.
A conference such as the NEC sends only one team to the NCAA tournament -- the conference tournament champion -- and Rice said a win against Pitt would do little to bolster the Colonials' tournament resume.
"If we win, it's a great win for Robert Morris University, but it's not an at-large bid," Rice said.
Robert Morris travels to play Central Connecticut State Thursday and Bryant Saturday.
Rice, a former Panthers assistant under Dixon, said he would rather play Pitt in November or December, before the NEC season kicks off in earnest. He said he will likely talk to Dixon at the Final Four in Indianapolis, when a lot of scheduling takes place, to see if the teams can play earlier in the season.
After the Colonials' win Saturday against Saint Francis (Pa.), Rice said he was not excited to play Pitt because he is thinking about future conference opponents "in the back of my mind." The time Robert Morris spends preparing for Pitt could be better spent resting injured players and preparing for conference opponents, Rice said.
The Colonials (16-8, 11-1) own a one-game lead over second-place Quinnipiac, and any missteps in the final weeks of NEC play could cost Robert Morris home court advantage in the conference tournament and, ultimately, a trip to the NCAA tournament.
But senior guard Mezie Nwigwe said he appreciates playing Pitt in February and said it could even help the Colonials in conference play.
"We're playing conference games, we're playing against the same competition," he said. "Now, we're going to play against a higher competition. It will wake us up."
Robert Morris has already signed a contract to play at West Virginia next season, and Rice said playing Pitt would be nice, but it is not a must. He said it is also possible the series could take a year off if the two teams can't agree on a date next season.
The Colonials and Panthers did not play in the 2007-08 season, Rice's first as head coach of the Colonials.
Rice said Robert Morris' athletic department gives him the authority to schedule opponents, so it is ultimately his call.
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com or 412-263-1722.