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Robert Morris

Robert Morris playing beefed-up schedule

| Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, 10:35 p.m.

The Robert Morris men's basketball team last season played its first 15 games outside the Northeast Conference and lost 10. Included were losses to eventual national runner-up Kentucky, Oklahoma State and several other strong squads from more prestigious leagues. All but one of the losses came on the road.

“Unfortunately, we don't get a lot of people who want to play us at our place, or sometimes anyplace,” coach Andy Toole said.

Sometimes that can help.

“The stuff we learned we were able to draw on as the year went on,” said Toole.

After playing a stiff nonconference schedule and withstanding suspensions and dismissals, the Colonials went 14-2 in the NEC regular season and won two games in the conference tournament before losing in the finals to Mount St. Mary's, another survivor of challenging, non-NEC competition.

The Mountaineers visited Villanova, West Virginia, Brigham Young and Michigan State, among other sites. After a so-so regular season, they won two road games to take the NEC championship and earn the program's first NCAA Tournament bid since 2008.

“You have to create a system and a mindset that you can play anyone, anywhere and have no fear,” Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian said. “We want to play in great arenas and play in front of large crowds.”

On Sunday, RMU will play North Carolina at the Dean E. Smith Center, better known as the “Dean Dome.”

“We really want to push our kids to get better,” RMU athletic director Craig Coleman said, adding, “There's nothing like telling your grandkids you played in Chapel Hill.”

Christian calls those games “the larger moments.” He said they raise the school's profile and allow players to “stretch themselves out” and see how good they are.

Toole said playing tough nonconference foes “helps us identify where we need to improve, identify who can handle the intense situations we're going to face when we get into league play.”

He added, “We want to make sure that when we go through the nonconference schedule, we have enough success to keep everyone together. It would be much easier if everyone we played was not very good.

But does that prepare you for the ultimate goal, conference success? You have to have good balance.”

Financial rewards also accompany the risks. Most marquee programs are loathe to schedule home-and-home series with mid-majors. Come to our place only or forget it, is the rule. The smaller programs acquiesce and take home handsome guaranteed payouts.

“It's hard to get those teams to play you at home, so if you have to play them on the road you might as well benefit,” NEC commissioner Noreen Morris said.

RMU is a private institution, and Coleman does not divulge payout figures. But he does cite new locker rooms and offices as examples of the added revenues.

“It certainly relieves stress on your budget,” said Coleman, who participated in a tough decision to cut seven varsity sports last year.

Christian said money is “part of the conversation” at Mount St. Mary's, which also is a private school.

“In college athletics today, you need materials,” he said. “We wanted to redo our practice gym, Memorial Gym. It's a memorable place on campus, but it was kind of run down. We wanted to bring that place to life. Fortunately, we play these challenging games, and they bring in the money to help us re-do the gym.”

The NEC is a cupcake-free zone, one of several conferences that restricts Division II or III opponents to facilitate strength of schedules. It also is a so-called “one bid” conference. Avoiding the dreaded No. 16 line in the NCAA Tournament is crucial.

“When it comes down to seeding, it's all about the nonconference schedule,” Morris said, adding that the league does allow members to schedule one D-II or D-III game per season.

“But we encourage our top teams not to play those teams,” she said.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer at Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com

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