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November 19, 2013

RMU must learn from UK game

The true test for Robert Morris didn't come Sunday night against Kentucky inside Rupp Arena.

The real test comes in a month when the Colonials take on Oklahoma State. Or maybe it truly comes in early March, when Robert Morris has the opportunity to seize its first Northeast Conference title and NCAA Tournament berth under Andrew Toole.

And just maybe, the final test might be on an arena floor just like Rupp Arena's, against a team with NBA prospects just like Kentucky's. Whether or not Robert Morris passes any of those future tests depends not on whether RMU won or lost Sunday night against the Wildcats but whether they've learned the lessons Kentucky handed down to them.

"We have to keep putting ourselves in these situations so guys can figure out how to be comfortable in this situation," Toole said Sunday night, "because hopefully we'll be successful and have a lot more environments like this one going forward."

The concept of Sunday being a learning process for Robert Morris isn't necessarily a popular one. RMU fans were out for blue blood, hoping for a magical repeat performance of last March's stunning NIT victory. No one believed John Calipari when he said it, but there was an important key kernel of truth in his declaration that Sunday wasn't about revenge for Kentucky. If the same two teams took the floor again, maybe that would have been the case. It wasn't. There were four players on Kentucky's roster who visited the Sewall Center in March. There were six on the RMU roster.

Toole understood. He wanted nothing to do with the revenge storyline or the concept of a sequel.

"A lot of things for us to learn from in this experience," Toole said. "Everybody wants to build a story up from last year's game, but obviously these are two completely different teams."

It's easy to forget, but last year's squad, even with its veteran core of Velton Jones, Russell Johnson and Coron Williams had significant mileage to cover before being capable of taking down Kentucky in the NIT. That was a team that opened the season with a 25-point loss to Rider and a 29-point loss to Lehigh. That was a team that prompted Toole to say after the Lehigh loss that he got his team back, that they woke up because of the drubbing.

There are new challenges now. And many of those challenges can be countered with the ammunition Toole acquired while watching his team against the Wildcats.

"I'm proud of our guys in terms of their fight and continuing to play hard throughout the game," Toole said. "We'll build on those things and learn from some of the mistakes so that when we get in similar atmospheres going forward we'll be better equipped going forward."

Toole actually came away pleased with Robert Morris' defensive effort against Kentucky. RMU held Kentucky to 1.19 points per possession, the fewest total for the Wildcats against a team not named Michigan State this season.

"We followed our formula defensively as best as we could, and unfortunately at the end of those possessions they still either got offensive rebounds or made threes," Toole said. "As I go back and watch film, I have four or five (jumpers) in my head that were pretty stand-still, and at this level those guys are going to be able to make stand-still jump shots and you can't give it to them."

Toole said he stressed to his team that on many possessions, they were in the right spot defensively. They forced a bad shot or a late shot, forced Kentucky to do extra things, and forced players who hadn't had success yet to step up.

Robert Morris would have loved a win, but Toole might have been just as interested in seeing how his players would fight and scrap regardless of the score. Toole was looking to see how his players would respond to an environment that many hadn't seen, all so that he can use the new experience as a teaching tool.

From day one, Toole has stressed the importance of being crisp, detail-oriented and poised in all situations. Sunday night was further proof that RMU must have that facet of its game down to be successful.

"Hopefully a lot of our guys understand that," Toole said, "and now we'll be able to learn from this and improve going forward."

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

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