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Robert Morris' NIT win over Kentucky still ripples

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Robert Morris' Mike McFadden celebrates with the fans after his free throws in the closing seconds won the game for the Colonials. The Colonials beat Kentucky, 59-57, in the NIT Basketball Tournament at the Sewall Center on Tuesday March 19, 2013.

When speaking to prospective Robert Morris students, Wendy Beckemeyer extolls traditional virtues, such as the university's academic excellence and recent growth. In March, she found something else to pitch.

“I also say, ‘We beat Kentucky,' ” said Beckemeyer, an RMU vice president who oversees the offices of enrollment and financial aid. “And people applaud every time I say this.”

The Colonials' 59-57 victory in the first round of the NIT hardly was the same as winning an NCAA championship. But for a school with fewer than 5,000 undergraduates and a basketball team that resides in the lower reaches of Division I, beating Kentucky inside its frenzied, sea-of-red, crackerbox home gym came close enough.

“I think the name of our university was everywhere,” RMU athletic director Craig Coleman said. “I was told we were the most tweeted phrase on Earth for a while.”

Kentucky was having a down year, but its name and brand remain powerful. The Wildcats also were the reigning NCAA champs. The return of their coach, John Calipari, who grew up in Moon near the RMU campus, provided another story line.

ESPN hyped the game and aired it to a national audience solidly rooting for Cinderella. Playing at tiny Sewall Center because of a Kentucky scheduling conflict, RMU seized the moment. The loud, stunning victory sparked a wild, court-storming scene and a campus-wide celebration.

Sunday's rematch will be played in Lexington, Ky., before a vocal and revenge-minded Rupp Arena crowd sure to be hostile to the Colonials. More than 20,000 are expected. Both teams are different, too, especially Kentucky. With freshman Julius Randle heading a spectacular recruiting class, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 going into the season (although that will change after Tuesday's loss to No. 2 Michigan State).

Regardless of the outcome, the effect of playing Kentucky the first time was nothing but positive for RMU, and it still lingers. It boosted the university's image and provided free advertising, a so-called “front door” to encourage people to learn more about the school.

“It was everything it was supposed to be,” Beckemeyer said. “It was a great human-interest story. ... From that moment on, our location and who we are created a lot of interest. It helped tell the story about Robert Morris as an institution.”

Quantifying the impact of a single basketball game is likely impossible. Had it not been played, RMU still would have been an expanding institution with a rising enrollment, increasing donations and a successful basketball program. On the other hand, beating Kentucky certainly didn't hurt.

“We think athletics and the Kentucky game are a great example of the high-profile things we have done to raise the name recognition of the school,” Coleman said.

“It gave people a nice frame of reference for us,” coach Andy Toole said. “It wasn't the reason we (signed) kids in the spring and summer, but it's a great starting point for a conversation. In the past, we'd ask kids what they knew about Robert Morris, and they would not know much. Now it's, ‘You beat Kentucky.' From there, we can start having an intelligent conversation.”

One thing that could be measured was the number of T-shirts distributed when the Colonials staged their season-opening Midnight Madness in October. Last year, 1,000 shirts were handed out, according to Marty Galosi, senior associate athletic director of external affairs. This time, it was about 2,000.

“There is a general buzz on campus, and the Kentucky game is one of the reasons why,” he said. “It was a crystallizing factor that this program has come a long way.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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