Robert Morris starts quest for NCAA tournament bid


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At the mid-major level of college basketball, the barometer of success can sometimes be limited in scope and perhaps even a little unfair.

For as much as a program wins in the regular season, it if plays in a league that often only gets one bid to the NCAA tournament, those accomplishments can be undervalued if it loses in the conference tournament.

It’s a reality Robert Morris has become familiar with the past three seasons.

In that time, the Colonials have been one of the most consistent programs in the Northeast Conference — averaging 22.7 wins per season — but they have missed out on the NCAA tournament each year.

When an entire body of work is evaluated through the lens of a six-day tournament, such situations are bound to exist. With Robert Morris again coming off a successful regular season, one in which it finished in first place in the NEC for the second year in a row, it’s a predicament it will have to face yet again.

“It’s what it is,” coach Andy Toole said. “We can’t change the system. I would love to have a situation where the regular-season champ advanced to the NCAA tournament and we could put our feet up for a week and figure out who we’re going to play. But that’s not the system that we have.”

That system has produced a maddening trend for the Colonials of late.

Since the start of the 2010-11 season, Toole’s first as head coach, 207 teams from outside college basketball’s power conferences have not made the NCAA tournament. Of those teams, Robert Morris’ winning percentage of 65.4 (68-36) is the fourth best.

Senior guard Karvel Anderson is only in his second season with the program, but the lack of a tournament appearance holds the same importance to him that it does for some of his teammates.

“I wanted to come here so I could have a chance to go to the NCAA tournament,” Anderson said. “Coach Toole’s been there as an assistant, [assistant] coach [Robby] Pridgen has been there as an assistant, but there’s nobody on our team who has been in there before in the positions they’re in now.

“When he first recruited me and talked to me, that was one of his biggest things he wanted to achieve. That’s the ultimate goal is making the tournament and it’s something we strive for every day.”

For Toole, 33, it’s one of the few things left to accomplish on a loaded resume that already includes a win against the sport’s winningest program in Kentucky and a conference regular-season title with an eight-man team. His three-year winning percentage is only slightly lower than that of his predecessor, Mike Rice, who parlayed that record into a Big East Conference coaching job.

But to Toole, there are better measurements of him as a coach, something that will remain the same regardless of whether the Colonials hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

“I would love to lead a team to the NCAA tournament, don’t get me wrong, and that’s obviously what our ultimate goal is,” he said. “But what we focus on is trying to be the best team we can. When it’s time for it to happen, it’ll happen.

“I want it to happen for these guys because of what they’ve been through and what they’ve been able to accomplish, but I don’t necessarily value myself as a coach based on me getting to the NCAA tournament.”

NOTE — Anderson was named the NEC player of the year and Toole was named the coach of the year by the conference.

Northeast Conference men’s basketball tournament preview capsule

When: Today, Saturday, Tuesday.

Where: Home court of higher-seeded teams.

The top four seeds: Robert Morris, Wagner, Bryant, Mount St. Mary’s.

Robert Morris’ path: The top-seeded Colonials finished first in the conference’s regular-season standings and will have home-court advantage throughout the tournament. If it wins its first game, it will meet the winner of St. Francis-Mount St. Mary’s in the semifinals.

Overview: For the second-consecutive season, Robert Morris enters the tournament as the top seed and prohibitive favorite to represent the conference in the NCAA tournament. After a 5-10 start this season, the Colonials have won 14 of 16 games. If they can knock off Fairleigh Dickinson, the Colonials could face Mount St. Mary’s, which upset them at home at the same juncture a season ago. If Robert Morris reaches the championship, the most likely opponent would be either Wagner or Bryant. Wagner shapes up as the Robert Morris’ biggest threat after winning its final eight regular-season games in a row. The Seahawks’ size and athleticism could give the undermanned Colonials problems.


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

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