|ESPN.com: Men's College Basketball||[Print without images]|
Editor's note: Last week, ESPN.com spent 24 hours with Robert Morris in Lexington, Ky., as it prepared to face the Wildcats at Rupp Arena. From 10 p.m. on Friday until 10 p.m. on Saturday, the program gave ESPN.com full access in the hours leading up to Kentucky's 87-49 win over the Colonials on Sunday night.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In college basketball, the sheep wear warm-ups, dark hoodies and flip-flops as they watch film of their butcher hours before a planned slaughter.
|Teams like Kentucky don't come to Moon Township often and Robert Morris took advantage of its opportunity in the NIT last season.|
There are subtle sighs and wide eyes in the dark conference center of a three-star hotel that doubles as a war room for the Robert Morris men's basketball team. Head coach Andy Toole puts film of Kentucky freshman star Julius Randle, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward with a frame that seems sturdy enough to prop up a sedan, on a loop.
Over and over again, the Colonials watch Randle burst through the lane and score with a series of left-handed maneuvers and power moves against Michigan State. In two days, they will try to stop him when Robert Morris faces then-No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Sunday.
Eight months ago, Robert Morris upset the Wildcats in the first round of the NIT. It was an ignominious end to an otherwise forgettable season. This, however, is not the same Kentucky team. And the Colonials know it.
"We're the lambs right now," Toole says.
--Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole
Randle arrived in Lexington with five of his McDonald's All-American friends in one of the greatest recruiting classes ever assembled. And they want revenge and a fresh meal after a loss to the Spartans last week at the Champions Classic in Chicago.
But Toole, a 33-year-old head coach who's wise beyond his three years of head coaching experience, has a plan to stop them all.
He uses a combination of basketball lingo and internal jargon to convey that strategy. "Close the gaps." "Duke it up." "Gang rebound." "Get your ass to the front." "Hedge." "He'll f--k up your set."
Translation: Don't abandon your defensive assignments or they'll put up 100 on us.
Toole, like every coach in his position, must evangelize. This Kentucky squad is so stacked that no sane man would pick Robert Morris, a team that lost to Eastern Michigan by five points in its last game, to overcome the Wildcats. But college basketball isn't about sanity. It's about achieving what seems impossible for the perennial underdogs.
|Julius Randle, the headliner in Kentucky's glittering recruiting class, had 10 points and 15 rebounds against Robert Morris.|
The entire mass appeal of the NCAA tournament depends on that principle. And the "Why not us?" message is what Toole preaches to his players while he uses his laser pointer to identify Kentucky's weaknesses on film.
"It's about taking your preparation into the game," he tells them.
The players stride confidently as they leave the room. "Get some sleep," Toole says. "Don't stay up."
When they're all gone, he steps down from his pulpit and admits the reality. Randle might be impossible to contain with the new rules that limit contact by defenders. John Calipari has a roster that will not allow Robert Morris to make any mistakes and leave town with a win.
And although Calipari tried to sell Toole on the benefits of the rematch when he pitched it to him months ago -- a national television appearance, a nice payday, a chance to compete against a powerhouse team -- the mid-major coach knows exactly why his program was invited to Lexington. Calipari assured Toole that revenge wasn't on his mind when he orchestrated the rematch, but he's not naive. Kentucky wants to right everything that went wrong eight months ago.
Even if his team loses big, though, Toole has no intentions to return home empty-handed.
Before they exit the bus, senior Anthony Myers-Pate tells his teammates to roam in packs. They shouldn't wander alone. The Fayette Mall in Lexington on a Saturday afternoon will be filled with vengeful Kentucky fans, they assume.
"Hey, ya'll," Myers-Pate announces. "We gotta stay together."
He's only half-joking.
As soon as they walk through the doors, people stare and murmur. One middle-aged man in a Kentucky sweatshirt stands inches from each player as they walk past him, one by one. His grimace suggests that, in his mind, he's throwing punches at all of them.
In Foot Locker, another member of Big Blue Nation blames junior college transfer Desjuan Newton for the money he lost when he bet on the Wildcats in their NIT loss to the Colonials in March. Newton didn't even play in the game but he's guilty by association in these parts, where Kentucky blue is a fashion statement.
Wildcats fans have not forgotten about what happened last March. And the frosty vibe in this mall proves it.
It's the same atmosphere the group encountered when it grabbed dinner Friday night at a popular spot called Malone's (whose menu features a dish called "Coach Cal's Chicken"). Everyone in the restaurant seemed to simultaneously stop eating when they arrived.
But a strange thing happened when Robert Morris beat Kentucky back in March. It became a villain and a hero.
Pittsburgh is a Steelers town. The black and yellow reign.
Robert Morris, the defending NEC regular-season champion, from the nearby suburb of Moon Township, is an afterthought in that terrain. After they'd slain Kentucky, however, the Colonials became rock stars. Locals, who'd ignored them before, began to call them the "Kentucky Killers" and wave when they saw them on the streets.
They also, unknowingly, earned the admiration of some folks a few hundred miles south.
Lexington is populated by Louisville loyalists, too. And some of them make the Colonials feel like kings again as they bounce around the mall.
|A loss to Robert Morris in the NIT this past March was an ignominious end to a forgettable season for Kentucky.|
"Excuse me," one woman says as she approaches a group of Robert Morris players in the food court. "Would y'all sign an autograph for my daughter? She's freaking out over here."
And she's not the only one. A gleeful elderly man waits as each player signs a slip of a paper. Bubbly high school girls snap photos with the team on their smartphones.
"You all gonna beat them, right?" one young shoe salesman asks.
The Robert Morris players smile.
"That's what I'm talking about," he says.
But Myers-Pate doubts his sincerity.
"Yeah, they say that, but then they'll want them to beat us by 50," he says.
They have a right to be skeptical.
The buzz has faded on their own campus. Many supporters left the bandwagon after the NIT. The Charles L. Sewell Center seats more than 3,000 but the average attendance at home games last season was 1,196. That hasn't changed.
At this mall in Kentucky, however, the clock hasn't expired on their 15 minutes.
"They're probably more recognizable at a mall in Lexington than they are back home," Robert Morris trainer Jason Daley says.
This trip is about basketball. But it's also about a rare chance to join college basketball's list of overachievers -- the characters who give the game its charm -- again.
--Robert Morris trainer Jason Daley
Senior Lucky Jones is usually the team's jester. He'd rather flick your ear than say hello like everyone else. He clowns assistant Robby Pridgen, who comes out of the mall with a Victoria's Secret bag. At the hotel, he playfully wrestles with Toole in a scrap for a mini-basketball.
But he's serious when he discusses his program's unique opportunity.
"I'm not gonna lie," Jones tells his teammates as they all eat Chinese food in the mall. "When I stepped into Rupp Arena [on Friday night], I felt something in my heart. If we beat them tomorrow, I'll shed a tear."
It's almost 3 p.m., so they all congregate near the mall's entrance as they wait for their bus to arrive.
Driver Keith Roadman -- "I always knew what I was supposed to be when I grew up," he says -- opens the doors and the players find their seats.
But two of them are missing. And it's Tim Lawrence's job to find them. He is Toole's director of basketball operations. He's also the program's babysitter for excursions like this one.
He promptly dials Newton and junior college transfer Aaron Tate.
"Where are you?!" he asks.
They're stuck in the Apple store, they say, but they'll be back on the bus within five minutes. Fifteen minutes later, they arrive.
When they finally come aboard, they have no legitimate explanation for their tardiness. And Lawrence is angry. It seems minor, but every member of this operation feels the pressure of this journey.
Even though they're unaware of the 87-49 bludgeoning they are about to suffer on Sunday night, they did not come to Lexington to lose. The slightest mishap could ruin the possibility of victory.
"Five-fifteen," says Lawrence, still frazzled by the delayed departure from the mall. "At 5:15, we'll leave for practice."
The frivolous tone of their day thus far will change soon.
There is a madman with a whistle yelling and pacing on the Rupp Arena floor. And it's not the guy who'd cracked jokes and playfully tussled with Jones at the hotel. Or the man who'd smiled when his wife, Brooke, and young son, Ryan, arrived.
|Robert Morris coach Andy Toole knew what his team was getting into when it agreed to play Kentucky at Rupp Arena.|
This is a different individual.
Toole is slim and youthful. He looks like his team's starting shooting guard, not its basketball coach.
He jumps into drills with players and maneuvers at full speed as though he's still playing guard for Penn, his alma mater.
He's a walking energy drink. He doesn't take breaks. Or many breaths, it seems. He just goes.
His age was appealing when Robert Morris hired him in 2010. He's in a position to relate to his players in ways that older coaches cannot. His laid-back demeanor, sense of humor and unfiltered style affect the entire program. Players and coaches seem loose throughout the entire trip.
Until they enter Rupp Arena, a building that will host more than 20,000 amped Kentucky fans on Sunday night.
Toole is not a friend, buddy or pal to the young men he's instructing right now. He's their head coach.
Young coaches must emphasize that point more than those who have many years of head coaching experience so that the lines aren't blurred within their programs.
Minutes into practice, Toole blows his whistle and stops everything and everyone in the gym after a sloppy drill.
"Who said, 'What the f--- was that?'" he asks. "Exactly. We're not talking like we're preparing for a game right now. We're acting like we just want to get through the drill. That's a good way to get your ass blown out tomorrow night."
Perhaps it's only coincidence that the two players he's currently riding are the two guys who couldn't find the breadcrumbs that led to the exit when it was time to leave the mall.
"That bulls--- look you have on your face is the same one you had Thursday night [in a loss at Eastern Michigan]," Toole tells Newton. "Which is probably why you weren't as productive as you could've been."
Singled out and frustrated, Newton responds.
"I'm not going to say anything else today," he says.
"No," Toole tells him. "Say positive things."
Meanwhile, Tate is clearly sluggish.
"Coach, you gotta give me a chance to get my head right," he tells Toole.
That was the wrong answer.
"Your head should have been right before practice," Toole says.
It's a feisty practice for both coaches and players.
This is not some team in turmoil, though. This is an exhausted squad that is preparing to play its third road game in nearly a week. The Colonials have been on buses for 12 hours and traveled 1,343 miles in eight days. The obvious tension is the result of a lengthy road trip that will end with their greatest challenge all season, a matchup against a team that features more future NBA draft picks in its starting lineup than Robert Morris has ever produced (two).
Still, this is a family. Players act like brothers. They have fun. And they also fight sometimes. Like brothers.
But practice doesn't end with disputes. Robert Morris eventually unifies again. The team is more seamless. They're executing. They're competing. Tate and Newton have new attitudes, too.
By the end of the evening, Toole has changed the mood in the gym.
A contentious one-on-one matchup between team manager Chris Speer and manager-in-training Paul Swank helps, too. It is hilarious to those watching it, but the game's participants are dead serious.
The pickup game ends when Speer throws an elbow at his protégé and punts the ball into the Rupp Arena stands after Swank scores.
The team needs the laugh. It's clear that the Colonials are relaxed again when Toole calls them to midcourt. He's back at church, preaching about exceeding expectations and overcoming the odds.
They'll be lucky if 50 Robert Morris fans travel to Lexington for the game, he says.
"Everybody else here," Toole tells his team, "is going to be against us."
At dinner, Robert Morris assistant Michael Byrnes goes for something healthy when he orders the Big Memphis BBQ sandwich and a Caesar salad at a restaurant called Rafferty's. The waitress keeps an ample supply of sweet tea on the table, too. Byrnes earned that meal, the team's last before Sunday night's matchup against Kentucky.
The players are popular here, too. There are, surprisingly, more pictures and autographs. One woman encourages Robert Morris to "ball out" before informing them that "I might be the only one cheering for you tomorrow."
Eight months ago, Toole's program secured a win over Kentucky that enlarged Robert Morris' national profile. After last season's NIT win over the Wildcats, Robert Morris received national attention that made Toole's pitch to recruits much easier.
"It's the conversation starter," he says.
Many coaches would've been content to feast on that win for the next decade.
|John Calipari's Kentucky team was still smarting after a loss to Michigan State when it played host to Robert Morris on Sunday.|
Toole, however, accepted a rematch.
Well, the $140,000 guarantee for the nationally televised game was certainly enticing to him and other school officials. The athletic departments of programs such as Robert Morris live on those checks that their basketball and football teams receive from wealthier schools before conference play begins.
But the money wasn't the only factor. Toole really believes that his program can achieve the impossible. Again.
And these road trips build the bond on a team with limited external support.
This is it. The players inhaling pasta, the coaches consuming BBQ and catfish, the team's handful of non-coaching staffers and Keith Roadman, the bus driver with the most appropriate name in bus driving history.
That's it. That's their circle. And as much as they're all ready to go home, they'll return to Pennsylvania tighter than the day they left. That's the plan, at least.
Even if the Colonials lose, what will they really lose? No team in the NEC will compare to Kentucky. And the NEC tournament, as it is every year, is still their only real path to the NCAA tournament.
But their dream is still alive.
The manager of Rafferty's stops by the coaches' table before the team departs and offers a few motivational words.
"A team can beat five guys," he says.
The Robert Morris coaches all nod in agreement.
It's inspiring, but the game was essentially over at halftime, when Robert Morris was down 44-20. The Colonials made just 16 of their 69 field goal attempts (23.2 percent). They actually held Randle to a modest 10 points and 15 rebounds. But Aaron Harrison had 28 points in the 38-point Kentucky win.
The strategy that Toole implemented on Friday looked great on the screen, but things changed when they tried to employ it against a fleet of McDonald's All-Americans.
But the Colonials are better for it. Everything, even the loss, was ultimately positive for the program.
Plus, that historic NIT win over the Wildcats is theirs forever, regardless of what happened on Sunday.
And they know it.
"It's worth it in terms of the exposure and experience," Toole said Friday evening. "What a great opportunity for our program."