DAYTON, Ohio – Five years can seem like yesterday or it can be an eternity, depending on your perspective.
For a college athletics program, five years brings a complete roster turnover, and so not a single Robert Morris player that takes the court Wednesday night in Dayton for the program’s first NCAA Tournament game for 2010 was on the floor when the Colonials (19-14) nearly upset Villanova as a No. 15 seed, losing in overtime, in what would have been the biggest win in NEC history.
They do, however, have two members of the coaching staff that remember that day well. It was Andy Toole’s last game as an assistant, Mike Rice left for Rutgers after that loss (after leading Robert Morris to back-to-back NCAA appearances), and Toole has been the man in charge ever since.
Now Director of Player Development Velton Jones was just a sophomore in that 2010 game and struggled, going without a field goal in 25 minutes of action. And, with a young team as it is, both Jones and Toole have chosen to downplay that 2010 game and focus on the present.
“I talked to them a little bit, but that’s it,” Velton Jones said.
Said Toole, “We’ve talked to our team a little bit about some past experiences, some opportunities that people have had to be associated with the tournament, whether it’s myself (Toole played in two NCAAs for Penn in 2002 and 2003) or people on our staff. Just trying to get them excited about being a part of it and trying to relay to them about how you can have some success in this tournament or how you can be at your best because all of our guys want to play at their best, but sometimes you can get too excited or too jacked up.”
As is sometimes the case in one-bid leagues, Robert Morris probably had better overall teams the last two seasons, but lost as the top seed in the NEC Tournament both times. But the Colonials impressively won NIT games both times, getting plenty of publicity for taking down Kentucky in 2013 before winning at St. John’s last season. Robert Morris will be an underdog again Wednesday (four points or 39%, according to KenPom) against Atlantic Sun champion North Florida, which – with all due respect to Manhattan – is the most surprising automatic bid team to be sent here in Dayton.
The Atlantic Sun has won three games in the NCAA Tournament the last two years (Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer), and the Ospreys (23-11) won the regular-season A-Sun title over FGCU as well and boasts a non-conference win over NCAA at-large team Purdue. North Florida’s current KenPom ranking of No. 127 is ahead of seven NCAA teams who didn’t have to go to a play-in game (Albany, Eastern Washington, Coastal Carolina, Belmont, North Dakota St., Texas Southern, and Lafayette). The Ospreys are making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in only its 10th season of Division I and will test the Colonials’ zone.
North Florida ranks eighth nationally in three-pointers made (308), 41st in three-point % (38.0), and 31st in eFG% (53.6). Sophomore Dallas Moore leads the Ospreys in scoring and assists, while Robert Morris will have to be particularly aware of sharpshooter Trent Mackey off the bench. Eighty of Mackey’s 92 field goals this season have been three-pointers and he shoots at a 44.0% clip.
“They shoot the three, shoot it a lot,” Rodney Prior said. “They’ve got a few guys that have a fast clip. So we’ve got to be high alert in our zone and aggressive, making sure all shots are contested. They play with big lineups, making sure we’re boxing out and not giving up second chances.”
North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll is a Pittsburgh native who was a finalist for the Robert Morris position before Rice got the job in 2007. He is a fast-talking, energetic coach who tries to feed that to his team. In his Dayton press conference Tuesday, he dared the NCAA transcriber to keep up with him, told a lengthy story about the history of McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes (on St. Patrick’s Day), and lauded his wife, who doubles as the North Florida cheerleading coach. He has one son who is a walk-on on the UNF team and another who is studying for a career in the media.
“In order to be successful at this level, you gotta have a family that understands,” Driscoll said.
(Please, please, read his full press conference here. Amazing stuff.)
This is the third straight year the NEC champ (none of the three times being the conference’s top seed despite the tournament being at home sites) has ended up in Dayton, and the Colonials will be looking to avoid its third straight loss here (LIU Brooklyn and Mount St. Mary’s), matching the MEAC’s record of futility from 2006-2008. While Monmouth (2006) and The Mount (2008) have play-in wins, the only other NCAA win for the NEC was Robert Morris beating an Atlantic Sun team (Georgia Southern) in 1983.
But Robert Morris came up big in the NEC finals against St. Francis Brooklyn, and will look to continue that roll on national television Wednesday (6:40 p.m., TruTV)
“We’ve had a good time, but we also worked hard to get here,” Velton Jones said. “We had a good practice (Tuesday) morning before we got here. We’re enjoying the moment, but we know we have to put some work in if we want to keep going.”