In a way, non-conference play for mid-major college basketball programs doesn’t mean much to some.
Players have been taught to treat every game with a certain level of urgency, as have the coaches that pass along those lessons. But, for teams such as Robert Morris, which plays in a league that — barring something bizarre — is given only one NCAA tournament bid, all that seemingly matters is how those teams perform in its conference tournament.
While that mindset might work for some people, Colonials coach Andy Toole is not one of them.
“The season started 15 games ago,” he said. “If you’re going to take the attitude that the season starts once conference play starts, then why do you even schedule the other games?
“It’s such a defeatist attitude, it’s unbelievable. The season’s been going on since August 28 when we had our first team meeting preparing for this year.”
Toole’s view comes from experience and seeing the impact non-conference games have on his team — be it improvement, growing pains or something else. He has seen a little of everything from this Robert Morris team which, after building a 5-10 record, begins Northeast Conference play tonight with a game at Sacred Heart.
A team that entered the season with six new scholarship players has taken some early lumps, but that was predictable. There have been signs of progress, however, but it is uncertain whether the lessons learned in non-conference play will stick.
“There are some guys that gained some valuable knowledge, there are some guys that gained some valuable experience that, if it’s used wisely, can benefit themselves and our whole team,” Toole said. “But we’re still definitely a work in progress.”
Nowhere were these inconsistencies more evident than on defense, long the hallmark of Robert Morris teams. The Colonials rank among the bottom 100 Division I teams in defensive efficiency, and, in 11 of 15 games, they allowed more than one point per possession.
NEC play represents an excellent opportunity for Robert Morris, not only for the second chance it presents, but also because of the conference’s wide-open nature. Eight of the 10 NEC teams will enter conference play with losing records, and the team with the best record, St. Francis, N.Y., is 9-6.
Many teams expected to make up the NEC’s upper echelon have stumbled or have been hampered in some way. Preseason favorite Wagner has shown signs of inconsistency and lost five of its past seven games. LIU Brooklyn, the NEC’s NCAA tournament representative the past three seasons, received news last week that star forward Julian Boyd’s career at the school is over after his right ACL was torn for the third time since December 2012.
Though things have been far from perfect for the rebuilt Colonials, the second half of its season holds hope and the promise that, perhaps, goals can be met in what looks like a winnable conference.
“It’s been wide open all year,” Toole said.
“I’ve always thought this has been wide open.
“There’s six or seven teams that, if they wanted it, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. I said that in the summertime and I think it’s held on to be true so far.”
Matchup: Robert Morris (5-10) vs. Sacred Heart (3-12), 7 p.m. today, William Pitt Center, Fairfield, Conn.
Radio, Internet: WBGG-AM (970); rmucolonials.com, necfrontrow.com.
Robert Morris: Coming off 64-56 loss Jan. 4 at Alabama. The loss was its third in a row and eighth in its past 10 games. … G Karvel Anderson has taken 30.8 percent of the team’s shots this season, the 76th-highest mark for a Division I player. … F Lucky Jones has averaged 16.7 points per game over the past seven games.
Sacred Heart: Coming off 66-53 victory Jan. 4 at New Hampshire. The win snapped a six-game losing streak. … Has five players averaging double figures in points led by G Evan Kelley (14.1 points per game). … Has lost seven of the past eight games against Robert Morris. … Anthony Latina is in his first season as head coach.
Hidden stat: Anderson and Jones have accounted for 43.5 percent of the Colonials’ points this season.
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.