MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—Up until selection Sunday, Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas had no idea where Robert Morris was located.
In fact, Michigan State’s speedy point guard didn’t even know the school existed.
“I don’t think I did,” Lucas said on Thursday. “I don’t think this team did, either.”
That’s understandable, considering there are plenty of people in the Pittsburgh area who really have no idea what Robert Morris is all about.
The commuter school of about 5,000 students in the Pittsburgh suburb of Moon Township, Pa., is swallowed whole by Pitt’s shadow, which has never been more encompassing than this season.
“I think this is going to give the school a lot of attention,” said Jeremy Chappell, the Colonials’ do-everything guard. “We are playing in Pitt and Duquesne’s shadow. But this gives us a chance to give Robert Morris a name, nationally. This is a great opportunity for us.”
After winning the Northeast Conference tournament, the Colonials (24-10) are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992. The 15th seed in the Midwest Region will play Big Ten champion Michigan State (26-6) in the first round on Friday night at the Metrodome.
“Our whole team was not recruited by the top teams,” forward Rob Robinson said. “So this is our time to make a national name.”
Even getting a name locally would be an improvement.
Coach Mike Rice, a former assistant under Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, said the attention this week alone has been more than money could buy for a team that often sees fewer than 1,000 fans at their home games.
Rice doesn’t sugarcoat things while prospecting for recruits who “will chew off their arm for a victory, a win.”
His first line to them is “you didn’t dream about coming to Robert Morris University. It’s not your dream to be called in the starting lineup and to hear Robert Morris. That being said, we can make you successful.”
In some ways, Michigan State is looking for respect, too.
The Spartans are the beasts of the Big Ten and have a long history of success in the NCAA tournament. But this season has been head-scratchingly inconsistent. They have beaten Oklahoma State, Texas and Kansas in convincing fashion, yet lost at home to Northwestern, Penn State and been blown out on the road by Maryland and Purdue. That doesn’t include a 35-point loss to North Carolina at Ford Field in Detroit.
Add to that the near constant bad-mouthing of the Big Ten as a mediocre, grind-it-out league that turns a beautiful game into a backyard brawl, and these Spartans enter the tourney with something to prove.
“I think the Big Ten has been disrespected all year,” center Goran Suton said.
The only way to change minds, of course, is to win.
The Spartans haven’t really been themselves since Raymar Morgan came down with walking pneumonia in mid-January. The illness sapped the team’s most dynamic player of all his strength and quickness, and he missed three games in February while recovering.
Suton was slowed by nagging knee injuries as well, but now the Spartans finally seem to be getting back to full strength, and not a moment too soon.
“It’s a chance of a lifetime,” Morgan said. “I can finally get to show the world what they have been missing for a while. And my team, it seems like we are playing our best basketball over these last couple of practices.”
Coach Tom Izzo chuckled at that remark, trying to remember the last time a player had talked about playing their best in practice. But the coach has noticed a steady improvement in Morgan, which he expects to trickle down to the rest of the team.
“Even though it is a crazy statement, I kind of have to agree with him,” Izzo said. “We’ve had some good practices and I think guys are very focused in on what we have to do. And now we have to play the game.”
Even Izzo is curious to see just what these Spartans can do in this tournament. He knows they have plenty of talent, as usual.
“I said all along we have a high ceiling and it’s higher than the one we’re at right now,” Izzo said. “But sometimes you never get to it. Because if we do, I still think we have some good basketball left to play.”
Rice can only hope that is the case for his Colonials, who could be bowed not only by Michigan State’s brand name, but by playing in the cavernous Metrodome in front of a crowd more than 10 times the capacity of the Sewell Center.
In fact, Robert Morris is the only team of the eight in Minneapolis who will hold a shootaround on Friday morning.
“Hopefully we get the nervous energy out and stop looking around and saying, ‘This is where the Vikings played the Steelers,”’ Rice said. “There could be any number of interesting things popping through an 18- to 22-year-old brain. Hopefully they calm down and understand why they’re there.”