RMU vs. Kentucky: Colonials answer call for rematch
November 16, 2013 10:55 PM
Lucky Jones and Robert Morris the day they shocked the college basketball world.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
While watching his team take part in an offseason workout in mid-April, Andy Toole felt his phone vibrate.
The Robert Morris coach saw a number with an 859 area code flash on his screen -- central Kentucky -- and, like most people who get calls from an unfamiliar area, he ignored it. It only took a few moments for the same person to call back and, again, Toole did not pick up.
Five minutes later, Jim Duzyk, the Colonials' sports information director, came down to inform Toole who was on the other end of those mysterious calls from Kentucky. It was John Calipari, one of the basketball-crazed state's most recognizable figures, and he wanted a rematch.
Not even a month earlier, Robert Morris scored the most important victory in program history, defeating the Wildcats, 59-57, March 19 in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
That call began a conversation that will culminate with a game between the two teams today at Rupp Arena.
Matchup: Robert Morris (2-1) at Kentucky (2-1), 7 p.m. today, Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Robert Morris: Coming off 69-64 loss Thursday at Eastern Michigan. ... Shot just 37.5 percent from the field against Eastern Michigan, a season-worst. ... F Lucky Jones had a team-high 18 points, his highest scoring output of the season.
Kentucky: Coming off 78-74 loss to Michigan State Tuesday. ... Nine players on its roster were not on the team last season. ... Its most recent recruiting class included five of the top 11 freshmen in the country, according to Rivals.com. ... F Julius Randle leads the team in scoring (24 ppg) and rebounding (14 rpg).
Hidden stat: Led by Randle, Kentucky players come down with 48.1 percent of available offensive rebounds, the seventh-best mark in Division I.
"I think it's a good opportunity for us to go play in a place like Rupp, have the game be nationally televised again," Toole said. "I think being able to play a school like Kentucky on ESPN2 after what happened last year ... it gives us another opportunity for people to learn about Robert Morris."
The game is part of a round-robin tournament called the Keightley Classic, one in which the Colonials will also face Eastern Michigan, Cleveland State and Texas-Arlington.
Unlike the conventional arrangement that will bring them together today, the March contest was the product of a bizarre confluence of events that brought the sport's all-time winningest program and defending national champion to the 3,000-seat Charles Sewall Center.
Robert Morris responded to the opportunity, winning in front of a record crowd that overflowed the school's bandbox gym. The victory was not technically an upset, as Kentucky only was a 41/2-point favorite, but, for one day, it made the small private school in Moon Township the talk of the college basketball world.
"It put us on the map," Robert Morris athletic director Craig Coleman said. "Every time we do something like that, it just raises our profile, raises the public's awareness of us.
"We had the two NCAA tournament appearances -- particularly the one against Villanova [in 2010] -- that really got a lot of national attention. But this one, even though there was less at stake as an NIT game, it captured people's imaginations."
In some ways, the ramifications of that 40-minute basketball game are still being felt.
It's difficult to evaluate a recruiting impact since the team's entire freshman class was signed before the game took place. Toole, however, has spoken to players who would not have considered Robert Morris previously or even answered his calls. He said there's a certain name recognition that comes when speaking with some high school players, that he represents the school that beat Kentucky.
The school itself has reaped benefits, too. Even before the high-profile win, Robert Morris already had seen its campus grow, but it accepted its largest freshman class this year, and the number of completed applications is up 10 percent from last year. On the night the Colonials beat Kentucky,, web traffic to the university's home page quadrupled.
In July, the athletic department signed a three-year deal with the local ESPN Radio affiliate to broadcast all Colonials football, men's basketball and men's hockey games. The basketball program, which usually has modest attendance numbers, is projected to have an eight to 10 percent increase in season-ticket holders, but that is down from the 22 percent jump from 2011-12 to 2012-13.
While some people hesitate to draw a direct correlation between the victory against Kentucky and the ensuing events, it's hard to deny the positive effect of the increased exposure.
"That's powerful and that doesn't go away very quickly," Robert Morris president Dr. Gregory Dell'Omo said. "To say that doesn't have an impact on people's attitudes and willingness to learn more about an institution I think would deny a reality."
For a smaller program, the idea of a 1-0 mark against Kentucky over the past 19 years is a tempting one to maintain. But the unspecified compensation the school will receive from its participation in the tournament makes the rematch a no-brainer for an athletic department that can use the money not only for basketball, but for other teams
Unlike the victory in March, the Colonials will enter the game Sunday as a decided underdog from more than a perception standpoint, as they will take the court against the current top-ranked team.
But, as important as the NIT win was for elevating the school's stature, those around the program know there is a certain time to move on, that, eventually, they want to become known for something more than a pleasant memory from a mid-March night.
"You can't continue to hang your hat on something you did eight months ago or 10 months ago or two years ago or five years ago," Toole said. "You've got to continue to try to be successful on the floor and continue to move your program in the right direction. That's our focus every day."
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.
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