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March 19, 2013

Game Day: NIT vs. Kentucky

Lucky Jones is just a sophomore, but the Robert Morris forward has played against and alongside elite players in his college and high school career. When Jones was at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, New Jersey, he had multiple Division I players as teammates, including current UCLA star Kyle Anderson.

It's that experience Jones hopes he and his teammates can lean on when Robert Morris hosts Kentucky Tuesday night in the first round of the NIT.

Game 34: Kentucky
WHEN: March 19, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Charles L. Sewall Center
YAHOO! SPORTS RPI RANKINGS: Kentucky 57, Robert Morris 124
KENPOM RANKINGS: Kentucky 47, Robert Morris 141
PROJECTED KENTUCKY STARTERS: F Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0, 244, Fr.), F Alex Poythress (6'7, 239, Fr.), G Ryan Harrow (6'2, 170, So.), G Julius Mays (6'2, 192, Sr.), G Archie Goodwin (6'4, 198, Fr.)
PROJECTED ROBERT MORRIS STARTERS: C Mike McFadden (6'8, 220, Jr.), F Russell Johnson (6'6, 180, RSr.), F Lucky Jones (6'6, 205, So.), G Coron Williams 6'2, 170, RJr.), G Velton Jones (6'0, 170, RSr.)

"Each time you step on the court, it helps you get better for any kind of experience you're going to go against. At the end of the day, we all have to step on the court and we have to play against each other," Jones said. "It's not like Superman against a regular person. It's just two teams going hard, trying to finish out the postseason with a W."

It's been a whirlwind 48 hours for Robert Morris and Kentucky, as both had to adjust to the sudden realization that a major powerhouse would be playing in the 3,000-seat Sewall Center. Kentucky plays in the second-largest college basketball in the nation (Rupp Arena) and routinely plays to a packed house on the road.

"It's definitely not going to be easy. It's going to be different for them," Robert Morris guard Velton Jones said.

It'll be different for Robert Morris, as well. Tickets were sold out by early afternoon Monday, and school officials indicated that the attendance could surpass the record of roughly 3,200, set in 2009 in the NEC final against Mount St. Mary's.

"Crazy, loud. I've been hearing that nobody's going to sit down," Lucky Jones said. "I can't wait to see it. I've never really seen it really packed or sold out before, so it's a great experience."

Though it'll be a more compact version, Andy Toole expects Kentucky to be used to the madness.

"I think our guys might be surprised by the atmosphere more than they will," Toole said. "It's awesome to have this type of atmosphere, it's great to have this type of attention, and it's incredible to have this kind of fan support that people are lining up to get tickets, but there's still a responsibility that we have as a team and as players to go out and compete and do the right things."

Toole has harped on his team's attention to detail all season. At times, the focus helped Robert Morris win 23 games. But it also slipped away from them at times, including the heartbreaking NEC semifinal loss to Mount St. Mary's. The ability to consistently compete and be detailed on every possession is something Toole said is a hallmark of good teams, including John Calipari's Kentucky squad.

"Their talent level and physical abilities are extraordinary. That's something we're going to have to try to neutralize with multiple bodies, great positioning or great fundamentals or different things like that," Toole said. "Coach Calipari gets them to compete and hustle and dive on the floor. I think that's one of his gifts, the fact that he gets guys who are future draft picks and McDonald's All-Americans and they're diving on the floor and taking charges and making all those winning plays that you need to make to be a good team."

Robert Morris has a veteran team with nothing to lose. Kentucky has a young team with a lot a reputation at stake. The environment is ripe for drama, and Toole is hopeful that the experience leads Robert Morris to have poise in a crazed atmosphere.

"Our guys have been in a lot of different experiences in a lot of different environments in different atmospheres against good players," Toole said. "Those guys are incredible talents, but that doesn't mean you can't go out and compete with those guys and follow your formula, play together as a team, and do things that will give you the opportunity to have success."

"This is a great thing for the university and the program," Velton Jones added. "Our whole excitement is that Kentucky is coming to the gym. We would never be intimidated."

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

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