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November 12, 2012Tweet Follow @achiappazzi
When the 2012 NIT Season Tip-Off field was announced and Robert Morris was pitted with Lehigh in the opener, it was considered to be a contender for the early season mid-major game of the year.
But after the season opener that both teams had on Friday, they'd be content for it just being a clean, solid game, rather than anything remotely close to epic. Monday's game might be defined more about those who don't dress than those who do.
Lehigh guard and likely future NBA draft pick C.J. McCollum will still grab headlines, and Velton Jones will look to make a name for himself and his team by trying to shut him down. But Robert Morris opened the season without Russell Johnson (high ankle sprain) and may be without Johnson for another game or two. Johnson's presence was sorely missed against Lehigh, though it's hard to see how one player's presence would have helped the Colonials in a surprising 79-54 blowout loss.
The Mountain Hawks, meanwhile, opened up on the road in Texas against Baylor. Already against a tough foe, Lehigh was without defender B.J. Bailey and talented big man Gabe Knutsen, and they were also sorely missed. Baylor shot 64.5 percent, out-rebounded Lehigh, and generally did what they wanted in a 99-77 win.
So Monday is a restart for both teams. The result isn't as big as the performance, though Lehigh has higher hopes of a Madison Square Garden appearance than Andrew Toole's Colonials. Lehigh can likely fight its way to an at-large bid with a good season. Robert Morris still has to win the Northeast Conference. Monday is about progress and improvement, showcasing what makes the Colonials a threat to win the NEC, something that never got off the bus against Rider.
In fact, that was the hope that Toole had entering this tournament in the first place. It's a chance for Robert Morris to line up next to a host of potential opponents that were either in the NCAA Tournament or at least finished above .500 in 2011-2012.
"For sure, and it'll be a great test to evaluate where we're at. It'll be a great benchmark to show if we need to do more," Toole said late last week. "Are we doing enough? Are there areas that we're struggling with? You look at a Lehigh and then Pitt or Fordham in your second game, and then the following week playing established programs. That's something you want as a program to be involved and go up against some of the better mid-majors."
Toole called McCollum "incredible", and fresh off Nurideen Lindsey pasting the Colonials Friday night, there's no question that most of RMU's focus this past weekend was on at least slowing McCollum down or isolating him. But RMU also needs to find a cure for its offensive woes, as Robert Morris was ice cold from the floor against Rider.
Win or lose, with a good showing Robert Morris can use the tournament to trumpet its recent success. Toole recognizes the platform as one of the most prestigious early season tournaments.
"I think it's up there," he said. "I think its Preseason NIT, Maui, Coaches vs. Cancer Classic - some of those are the more prestigious ones."
Robert Morris' hope is that their performance matches the prestige of the event.
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at email@example.com.
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