As part of my crazy wild spring break plans, I watched endless hours of the NCAA tournament. My bracket is busted. Your bracket is busted. If by some miracle your bracket is not busted, here’s to hoping that Florida Gulf Coast wins it all. In that case, I can guarantee your bracket will be ruined. Let’s move on from there.
So as to not stir up more sadness, I want to turn everyone’s attention to the NIT tournament. While this is a less prestigious tournament — featuring such teams as the Niagara Purple Eagles — there was a lot of hype for its featured first-round matchup: Kentucky vs. Robert Morris.
The mismatch is unbelievable. Kentucky consistently has one of the best basketball recruiting classes in the country, and you’ve probably never heard of Robert Morris before, or even better, you didn’t know that the Northeast Conference — home of the Robert Morris Colonials — existed. It is home to other basketball powerhouses such as the Bryant University Bulldogs, Fairleigh Dickinson University Knights, Long Island University Blackbirds and Sacred Heart University Pioneers to name a few.
On the other hand, Kentucky is the winningest basketball program in the country. It holds the record for most all-time wins and boasts the highest all-time winning percentage. The Wildcats’ head coach, John Calipari, is a gentleman that I have criticized before for his “one and done” preaching as well as his history of NCAA violations and sanctions. He has the prestigious honor of being the only coach to ever have Final Four appearances vacated at more than one school (1996 – UMass, 2008 – Memphis). Last season, he led the Wildcats to their 8th NCAA tournament championship and the first of his career.
Kentucky’s home court is located in Rupp Arena, which has a capacity of 23,500 fans. As the higher seed, Kentucky would have hosted the NIT game against Robert Morris, but because of the upcoming NCAA tournament games to be hosted in Rupp Arena (oh the irony) Robert Morris hosted this matchup in their arena with a capacity of 3,056. The announcers remarked that the size of Robert Morris’s arena would not even hold the student section of Kentucky’s court, and yet, it was the setting for this game.
Kentucky lost six players from last year’s championship team, and one of their star players was sidelined due to injury prior to the NIT tournament. This was definitely not the team Kentucky had brought into the NCAA tournament one year ago, but it still had high expectations for the NIT tournament.
So, in an arena packed beyond capacity, Robert Morris started the game with a 10-0 run. Kentucky looked out of sorts and completely stunned. This was supposed to be a walkover game for them. They were the top recruits in the country playing the bottom seed in the NIT tournament in a first round game, but the mismatch seemed to be reversed.
Robert Morris led for the majority of the game, but the match was tied with :09 remaining in the second half, and it felt like Kentucky’s experience might give them the upper hand. However, in the final seconds of the game, Kentucky committed a foul. Robert Morris won the game 59-57 and the students stormed the court.
The energy in that arena was palpable. The Robert Morris fans cheered for their school the entire game, and you could feel that the Colonials wanted it more. It was an embarrassment for Kentucky to be in the NIT, let alone having to play away from Rupp Arena due to a scheduling issue — and it showed.
After the game, commenting on a desperation three-point shot that didn’t go in for Kentucky to win the game as time expired, Calipari said, “They deserved to win the game. If we would have made that shot, it would have been a shame.”
There is a sports phrase that comes up as a result of games like this one: there’s a reason you play the game. On paper, this was a joke of a matchup. The accolades, resources and experience of Kentucky basketball are extraordinary compared to Robert Morris. That is an undeniable truth.
So, if you were going to look at the matchup prior to the game, you wouldn’t have given Robert Morris a fighting chance. However, it seemed that every Robert Morris fan in that arena knew that they had an opportunity to prove all the haters wrong and rise to the occasion.
What this loss means for Kentucky is truly negligible. The Wildcats have the best recruiting class in the country coming in for next season and have a projected roster with eight freshmen out of 13 roster spots. Their projected 10-man rotation will be comprised solely of five-star recruits.
Regardless, even though it’s a loss that many Kentucky fans will forget in the glory of the upcoming year, it is a game that will remain with Robert Morris’ basketball program forever, and that’s the beauty of all around March Madness.