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March 17, 2013

RMU to host Kentucky in NIT

Andy Toole was on hold, waiting to make a live appearance on ESPNU as the network revealed the NIT bracket, when he learned his team's first round opponent.

Toole wasn't surprised to learn that it was a team the caliber of Kentucky. The defending national champions were just one of the teams Toole had his eye on in the last few days as Robert Morris waited for the NIT schedule to be announced.

But neither Toole nor anyone else else associated with Robert Morris could have imagined what came next. Robert Morris will not travel to top-seeded Kentucky, but instead will play host to one of the most storied programs in college basketball.

Kentucky cannot host the game because Rupp Arena is being used for the NCAA Tournament, and it could not be moved elsewhere near Lexington because Kentucky staff would be unable to help staff the game.

"I feel like Rocky from Rocky I, who just got a shot at the champion in the fight against the defending national champion in our home city," Andy Toole said on ESPNU. "We're extremely excited. Our guys are going to be through the roof."

The game will bring Kentucky coach John Calipari back to his hometown. The Moon native is a frequent visitor, but this will obviously be a very unique trip.

"Hectic is probably the best way to describe it," Toole said. "We'll have to get ready for some extra media attention with Coach Calipari coming back to Moon. I think his grandmother actually worked in the cafeteria at Robert Morris, as I'm sure he'll tell everyone over and over again."

The reigning national champion, Kentucky is 21-11 and lost star Nerlens Noel to an ACL injury. Even without Noel, Kentucky is loaded with potential NBA prospects and is still a significant threat a year after winning the national title.

"We knew we were going to play a team like Kentucky or one of the teams on the bubble, and hopefully we'll prepare ourselves mentally to go and play a great game against a great team," Toole told ESPNU.

Robert Morris had an idea that they'd draw a top opponent. Even with a 23-10 record, Robert Morris' profile wasn't going to put the Colonials higher than a 7-seed. Toole said one thought immediately comes to mind when he thinks of Kentucky.

"They're the defending national champions, first and foremost," he told ColonialsCorner. "They're the team, or one of the teams, that's come up in discussions as the best in basketball the last few years."

Toole said he and Calipari have had a few conversations in the past but don't have a real relationship. When they had a few minutes to talk, they've talked a little about Robert Morris. Assistant coach Mike Byrnes has a deeper relationship with Calipardi, as Byrnes played two seasons at Massachusetts when Calipari was the head coach. Calipari later hired Byrnes as a graduate assistant coach in 1995-1996.

Because of the connections and the unique environment surrounding the game, social media was instantly buzzing. Toole said the excitement was obvious and that the team would talk about handling the excess attention in order to put the best product on the court. After all, he said, the opportunity to play the defending national champs on ESPN with a curious nation watching is one that they have to take advantage of.

"It's great to have this game and this opportunity, but at the same time you have to show up and perform. You have to compete," Toole told ColonialsCorner. "If you handle it the right way and you respect the game and respect the opponent, if you do some of the things that you're capable of doing, then it speaks volume for the program regardless of the outcome. But that's only if we do what we're supposed to do."

Tickets are $20 for reserved seats, $15 for general admission, and $5 for students. They'll be available beginning at 9:00 a.m. Monday morning by calling the Robert Morris ticket office at 412-397-4949.

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

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