Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Robert Morris sets themselves up for an extended stay in NYC, with vengeance on the mind

For somebody on the outside looking in, one without much knowledge of the Northeast Conference, it may have seemed as if the Robert Morris Colonials and the Long Island University Blackbirds were on a collision course all season for a rematch in the Northeast Conference Championship game.  On Wednesday night in Brooklyn, we will be seeing the rematch of the overtime thriller that we witnessed a year ago. But there is always more to the story than what meets the eye, so first let us take a look at how our Colonials have reached this point.

Coming into the 2011-2012 season, expectations for the Colonials were high. The Colonials roster features talented guards in Velton Jones, Coron Williams, and Anthony Myers, swingman Russell Johnson, and forwards Lijah Thompson and Lawrence Bridges, add in a talented freshman class and mid-season addition Mike McFadden (after transferring from Iona, Mike finally became eligible in December), and a young rising Head Coach in Andy Toole and you knew this team had the chance to be special.  But just how special?

Robert Morris played well in their non-conference schedule going 9-4 with quality wins over Ohio, James Madison, Youngstown State, Duquesne, and La Salle, and tough losses against, Pittsburgh, Cleveland State, and Memphis.  But as we all know, if you're going to be successful in college basketball, you have to perform well in conference play, especially at the mid-major level, if you want to make your presence felt on the national stage.  In smaller conferences like the Northeast Conference, where it is a one bid league, you need to win your conference tournament to earn the automatic bid if you want to make the NCAA tournament, and you need to perform well in your conference schedule to set yourself up for the conference tournament.

Although many media outlets who have covered our Colonials throughout the season have pointed out that they have struggled with consistency at times in the season, I always believed that this team was going to be great.  This team didn't necessarily struggle with consistency, but rather they went through the growing pains, and maturation process that a team goes through as they build chemistry. The Colonials struggled with injuries at times as they missed Russell Johnson, and Lucky Jones an All NEC rookie performer, for extended periods of time, and they simply dealt with a much improved Northeast Conference.  At one point this season the Colonial Athletic Association, the Northeast Conference, and the Big 12 were the only conferences in the nation that boasted three teams with 20 wins or more.

After going 13-5 in conference play the Colonials found themselves in third place headed into the NEC tournament.  On Thursday March 1st the Colonials welcomed the sixth seeded Monmouth Hawks to the Sewall Center for the opening round.  Robert Morris put on one of the most impressive shooting performances we've seen from them in recent memory.  Coron Williams finished 8 for 11 from long distance and lead all scorers with 25 points.  That win set them up with the second seeded Wagner Seahawks on Sunday March 4th in Staten Island.

Despite finishing in second place, Wagner was the team that received the most press time of any Northeast Conference this season.  That is because they had the conference's most impressive non-conference win over Pittsburgh, and the most famous Head, and Assistant Coach in the conference in Danny and Bobby Hurley respectively.  In just their second season the Hurley's have changed the culture of Wagner Basketball, and this season they established a new school record with 25 victories.  But heading into a hostile environment at the Spiro Sports Center, where the betting line had them as seven point underdogs, and they had already suffered an ugly 80-69 loss earlier this season, the Colonials were anything but intimidated.  Robert Morris put together a brilliant team effort, led by an outstanding performance by Velton Jones, who showed why he earned first team All-NEC accolades this season, and pulled off the 71-64 upset victory.  Down at the half 31-29, the Colonials went on an 11-1 run to start the 2nd half and never let up.  Despite battling a tough Wagner defense, a late Wagner run, and the referees at times, Robert Morris advanced to their fourth straight NEC Championship Game.

After LIU made a late comeback to stave off Quinnipiac's upset bid, the stage was set for the conference title rematch.  In the regular season Robert Morris won the only matchup between the Colonials and Blackbirds by a margin of 75-66.  This time the stakes will be much higher with a conference title and the berth to the NCAA tournament on the line, and the Colonials will be ready to go, with vengeance on the mind.

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