Now the real games begin.
As crucial as the non-conference season is across college basketball, for leagues like the Northeast Conference, only one set of games truly matters: The 18 contests played between now and March.
That's not to say Robert Morris didn't learn a few things during it's 8-5 performance in the non-conference schedule.
Game 14: Bryant
WHEN: January 3, 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: Charles L. Sewall Center
TV/RADIO: WPIT 730 AM (RMU Radio)
YAHOO! SPORTS RPI RANKINGS: Bryant 141, Robert Morris 136
KENPOM RANKINGS: Robert Morris 120, Bryant 228
PROJECTED BRYANT STARTERS:
F Vlad Kondratyev (6'8, 220, Sr.), F Alex Francis (6'6, 205, Jr.), G Frankie Dobbs (6'3, 185, Sr.), G Corey Maynard (6'3, 185, Jr.), Dyami Stark (6'2, 195, RSo.)
PROJECTED ROBERT MORRIS STARTERS: F Mike McFadden (6'8, 220, Jr.), F Lucky Jones (6'6, 205, So.), G Karvel Anderson (6'2, 190, Jr.). G Coron Williams 6'2, 170, RJr.), G Velton Jones (6'0, 170, RSr.)
"I think we could have done better, but from our first game to (Thursday), we actually made some big improvements," Velton Jones said. "We have to be more consistent, so hopefully we can do that in NEC play."
Consistency and mental focus was a concern for Andrew Toole's club from the start, and blowout losses to Lehigh and Rider exacerbated that early concern.
"(We improved) our intensity, how hard you have to come out and be in every game and play. You can't just expect to show up and expect to win," Coron Williams said. "You play gritty and hard every single play. You have to get dirty out there. I think we've gotten better with that throughout the games."
Robert Morris 8-3 since that start, with the losses coming to Xavier, Arkansas, and Savannah State.
"I like the way we progressed, that's for sure. I like certain roles that developed over that time," Toole said, specifically mentioning David Appolon's progression as a defense-oriented guard. "I think the development of some of those guys is really important."
The non-conference season also gave Robert Morris a glimpse at the rest of the league.
"I think we're a better league than we showed," Toole said. "I'm not one to make excuses, but we had some situations with certain teams in the league, whether it was LIU and the injuries they've faced or Wagner and some of the injuries they've faced."
"It's been a tumultuous non-conference year for the NEC, to say the least," he added. "I think there were some very good things that were done, I think there were some wins that caught people's attention. I'm just not sure there were enough of them, unfortunately."
One of the highs for the league has been the play of Robert Morris' opponent on Thursday: Bryant. The Bulldogs were brutally bad last year, but Toole said the 2-28 record was a bit of a misnomer.
"I think their record wasn't an indication of how good of a team they were last year. I thought they had some games early last year as I watched their games that they could have won," Toole said. "I think the addition of some guys they had sitting out has helped with that. Dyami Stark and Joe O'Shea have been two huge contributors to their success."
That success has included wins over an admittedly bad Boston College team (but still an ACC school) and an upset of Lehigh, which beat RMU soundly earlier in the year. Bryant's been able to play at multiple styles, as neither BC nor Bryant surpassed 60 points while the Bulldogs put 80 up on Lehigh.
"When you have a senior point guard like Frankie Dobbs, he's really good at playing to the pace of the game," Toole said. "If they have opportunities and can go, they go. If it needs to be a half-court, grind you out, execution set type game, they can do that as well."
While Bryant is coming off that upset win over Lehigh on December 29, Robert Morris hasn't played since December 20. The Colonials have worked on conditioning drills, getting healthy, and refining some of their individual games, but Toole said there's no substitute for in-game environments.
"It is a little bit of a concern, not having played a game in two weeks," he said. "Normally you would think that would entice guys to be super excited to come out and play, but a lot of times in sports you see teams that have long layoffs have some rust. Hopefully we don't have any of that."
The other concern is Robert Morris' rhythm. The Colonials played well in December and were beginning to show flashes of what people were expecting out of RMU this season.
"With our team and our guys, I think rhythm is a big part of what we need to be," Toole said. "As crazy as it sounds, sometimes when we have games in a shorter span with limited practice in between, we get into a good groove. Hopefully we can find that groove quickly because we know how important that Bryant game will be on Thursday."
Part of the drive will come from the push to get into the NEC title game for the fifth year in a row. Jones hasn't known anything except a championship game, and he'll do all that's in his power to get Robert Morris on that path as quick as possible, starting on Thursday.
"That's why our coaches get the schedule like that, so we can be ready for NEC play. We've faced a lot of great talents, a lot of different styles of play. They tried to prepare us for everything that goes on in the conference," Jones said. "Our practices have been a bit more intense. Our thing is just try to get better every day and try to put ourselves in a position to get to the finals again."
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.