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November 7, 2013

It's NCAA Tourney or bust for RMU

Andy Toole exerts a powerful control over his basketball team. But as a competitive man and as a coach always in search of ways to motivate a group of 18-to-22 year-old young men, Toole is always searching for a leg up to keep that control in his favor.

He found a new way to lay it out to his charges when the 2013-14 Robert Morris basketball team met for the first time as a group earlier this fall.

"I told them in our first meeting that I'm pretty much the only guy that knows anything about the NCAA Tournament," Toole said with a smile, "So listen to what I say and we'll see what happens."

The 33-year old head coach is the only member of the coaching staff to have appeared in the NCAA Tournament, doing it as a player for Penn and then as an assistant coach twice under Mike Rice. None of his current players have made it to the NCAA Tournament. During Toole's first three seasons as head coach, the quest was to get back to the NCAA Tournament, as players like Lijah Thompson, Velton Jones, Russell Johnson and Coron Williams all experienced the marquee moment as freshmen.

Now it becomes a quest for the current roster to experience the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

"Part of the reason that you come to Robert Morris is for the opportunity in a successful program," senior guard Karvel Anderson said. "This year, even more than last, I think we have guys who are hungry and want to try to make it. We don't have anybody on the roster who has (NCAA Tournament) experience."

Robert Morris has been very close to an NCAA Tournament berth under Toole. The Colonials went to the Northeast Conference final in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and won the NEC regular season title last year. But LIU Brooklyn thwarted Robert Morris the first two years, and Mount St. Mary's upset RMU in the semifinal last year.

"Some of our guys have been close. Some of our guys have an understanding of how hard it is to put yourselves in position to compete for a championship," Toole said. "The coaches have to make up a difference."

Looming even larger is the NCAA Tournament-caliber win over Kentucky that served as last year's consolation prize. Many around the program and multiple national pundits consider the NIT win at the Sewall Center over the Wildcats to be better than an NCAA Tournament appearance. Robert Morris is very appreciative of what the win meant, but now that some months have passed, the Colonials aren't ready to equate the win with an NCAA Tournament bid.

"I don't know if we'd be doing this if everybody didn't want to go to the NCAA Tournament," Toole said. "It's something that continues to motivate us. And obviously if you get there once, people want you to get there again and again."

Anderson said that many players feel that they haven't completed their career until the they've reached the NCAA Tournament.

"I've never won a championship with a team in my life," Anderson said. "That's just something I feel like my entire team is hungry for."

Over the summer, the coaching staff and athletic department built an internal motivational campaign designed around the stylized word, "MOmentum," a play on the school's nickname of "Bobby Mo" and the concept of using the Kentucky win as a platform to reach newer heights, including the NCAA Tournament.

"The Kentucky win was something that was an amazing thing for the program, an amazing thing for the conference, but it was just momentum to boost us into this year," Anderson said. "That year is over with. Embrace what happened, but still know we're hungry, that we have more to do.

"Kentucky is not the end of our careers. It's not the end of Robert Morris. So going forward, we want to use that that to kind of catapult us forward and use it to try to start our season off the right way."

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



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