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November 18, 2011

Toole faces alma mater at the Palestra

When Andrew Toole walks into the famed Palestra this weekend, it won't be the first time that the University of Pennsylvania graduate returns to his former home court.

Toole was there several years ago when Robert Morris took part in the original Hoop Group Classic. But now he's a head coach. And for the first time in his coaching career, he's facing his alma mater.

It'll be a different experience, if not a little weird.

"I don't know if it's extra special. There's a conflict of interest at times," Toole said. "I root really hard for Penn. I want them to do really well. I have great memories of that place. I'm very fond of a lot of people that are there."

Toole credited Penn with helping him mature and grow, and that makes Saturday different than it would be against any other program. So Toole spoke with a man who's been in a similar situation: His former coach and mentor, Fran Dunphy. Dunphy is now the coach at Temple and has gone through some of the same experiences as Toole.

"I talked with Coach Dunphy about it last week, because Temple played Penn Monday night, and he said, 'It's always my favorite game of the year', sarcastically," Toole said.

So Toole is channeling his focus onto his team, attempting to take the positives of his two years at Penn and the benefits he gained from it by helping his players achieve the same positive experiences. After all, it'd be almost unfair in his eyes for him to shift any focus away from the game onto his memories and feelings for Penn.

There is little doubt, though, that Toole will make sure the players understand the significance of getting two games in the Palestra. Toole's already planning on giving the team a history lesson with a walk through the Cathedral of Basketball's newly renovated museum and historical elements on its concourse.

Toole's not the only one associated with Robert Morris who will enjoy a bit of a homecoming. Velton Jones, Lijah Thompson, Russell Johnson, and David Appolon are all essentially returning home. And Mike McFadden and Lucky Jones have family well within driving distance.

So Toole not only has to handle the influx of familiar faces on his end, but he has to guard against what he light-heartedly calls "Ant Myers Syndrome": Trying to do too much in front of your family and friends.

The origin of the affliction is last year's game in Baltimore against Morgan State, a game Robert Morris lost 77-76. Myers, then a freshman, was playing in front of family and friends who made the short trip up the Beltway from D.C. Myers went 0-for-8 from the floor and had five turnovers.

"We try to make a joke out of it, but at the same time, there's truth in jest," Toole said.

So when the Colonials played in Jersey City on Tuesday against St. Peter's, Toole had Myers talk to Lucky Jones about staying within himself. And Toole will have the experienced players and his staff talk about staying focused in front of family and friends at the Palestra.

"We try and remind them that even though we're going somewhere where your family lives, that doesn't mean you turn into Kobe," Toole said. "We have to fight against it. We have to talk about it."

Toole recognizes the challenge. Half of dealing with a situation - any situation - is getting it out in the open. That's why he wants to talk to his players about returning home. Because he recognizes just how hard it is to check your emotions and memories at the door when there is work to be done.

"It's a hard thing," he said. "When you give so much to a certain place, and a certain place has given so much to you, there's a bond there."

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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