Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Robert Morris wins one for the 'lambs'
By Dana O'Neil
Twenty years ago, I covered Rider in its first-round NCAA tournament game against Kentucky. The Broncs of the Northeast Conference were naturally a 16-seed; the Wildcats of the soon-to-be NBA were a No. 1 seed.
Rider’s best player, Darrick Suber, agreed to do a blog for our newspaper, The Trentonian, detailing the experience. His entry from the game day in Nashville included his memories of walking onto the Vanderbilt court for the first time, into the throng of the Big Blue Nation and hearing one distinct voice yell in a female Southern drawl:
"Here come the lambs," she said.
As in to the slaughter.
She was right, of course. Kentucky won that game 96-52, as is scripted in those sorts of matchups.
Which takes me to what happened Tuesday night on the small campus of Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pa., hometown of one John Calipari.
Andy Toole's Robert Morris team earned a 59-57 victory over Kentucky in the NIT first round.
Robert Morris University, whose best postseason appearance before Tuesday night was an almost-win against Kansas in 1990, beat the University of Kentucky, whose latest best postseason appearance came 350 days ago, when the Wildcats won their eighth national championship. A program with more losses than wins in its history beat the program with more wins than anyone in college basketball history.
So feel free to say that this was "only" an NIT game and mock the fact that Robert Morris fans stormed the court.
Then understand the absolute impossibility of what just happened.
After the brackets came out Sunday night, players and head coach Andy Toole understandably reacted as if they’d been punk’d.
"I feel like Rocky in 'Rocky I' who just got his shot against the champions in our home city," he said.
Guard Velton Jones tweeted, "Really? Why can’t I breathe right now?"
Well, Velton, because the Robert Morris Universities of the world are supposed to be the sacrificial lambs, not hosts -- and that was only from an ironic twist of NCAA hosting fate -- and certainly not winners.
According to the Department of Education’s latest equity in athletics numbers, the Colonials men's basketball operating expenses are $307,670. Kentucky spent $212,242 per participant.
Robert Morris’ gym includes a track circling the court and lines on the court for volleyball games. Kentucky’s newly upgraded locker room is one step below the Plaza.
Calipari makes $5.2 million. Toole? Well, Toole does not.
Money, apparently, can buy you neither love nor basketball victories.
The Colonials didn’t just win this game, they deserved to win it. They outplayed the Cats. That says as much about Kentucky as it does about Robert Morris, but I’m not going to ruin the Colonials’ moment by bogging it down with UK's myriad of issues. Calipari covered that in his postgame news conference.
As starry-eyed as the Colonials might have been on Twitter, they never played like deer in headlights, not even after Lucky Jones headed to the showers after a foolish -- and dangerous -- flagrant foul on Archie Goodwin.
They looked as calm as their baby-faced coach. Toole, by the way, might be the only Division I coach who could challenge Brad Stevens in the head-coach-most-likely-to-get-carded-at-a-bar competition.
Given his first head-coaching gig at the age of 29, after Mike Rice moved on to Rutgers, Toole was nonchalant about being the youngest coach in Division I tag. He told me dryly in 2009 that he could very easily become "the youngest head coach to be fired," so why get hung up on it?
Toole comes by his sane outlook and bright hoops mind naturally. He played for Fran Dunphy at Penn, helping the Quakers to two NCAA tournament berths. What he lacked in physical skills he made up for with basketball smarts, a talent he has brought with him to his coaching job.
His team did exactly what it needed to do on both ends of the court, draining available 3-pointers and picking smart spots to drive.
Now Toole and his players have given Robert Morris its most significant moment, certainly in basketball history and maybe in the school’s history altogether.
For one day at least, the lambs pushed back and refused to be silenced.