1. How much have the Colonials been pointing to this game after the way last year ended up?
Not as much as you might think. They recognize how important it is, but they're not bringing it up in the media or even in one-on-one sessions. Jeremy Chappell seemed to be more focused on getting some revenge on St. Francis PA this weekend - he was forced to sit out the first SFPA game last December when the Red Flash came in and upset the Colonials in Moon Township. That said, the Colonials still have that bitter taste in their mouth and they're going to do all they can to control both games this year.
2. Is there a better rivalry than this for the Colonials?
No. This is it. One might be able to point to Duquesne as being a more natural rival, but that series simply doesn't carry the weight it once did. Duquesne's a nice win if they can get it, and a solid environment for a basketball game in Pittsburgh, but there's no true hatred there. The Mount will be roundly jeered when they walk onto the Sewall Center floor in February.
3. It seemed like the Colonials really struggled offensively at the start of the season. But that has really gotten better of late, the Duquesne and Xavier games withstanding. Has there been a change or is it just a matter of this new group fitting into roles?
It's tough to replace two 1,000 point scorers and two of the best players ever to put on a Robert Morris uniform. Tony Lee and AJ Jackson were the focal points of the offense last year. Everything ran through them, even if it ended in a Chappell jumper or Jimmy Langhurst three. It is very much a work-in-progress. Jimmy Langhurst has been quiet. Bateko Francisco hadn't done much at all until Saturday offensively - although he's been dynamite defensively - and JUCO transfer Rob Robinson has battled a knee injury and an overall comfort level. They've struggled, but they're beginning to gel.
4. What is the sense around the team as it heads into the NEC portion of the season?
They believe they can win. This team is not as offensively talented as last year's team, but they're more athletic. Rob Robinson can sky out of the building - he puts on a show during warm-ups - so he's replaced the stockier AJ Jackson down-low. Chappell is even better than he was last year. He's stronger, he's faster, and his endurance and stamina have improved. But they are inconsistent. They love the three-pointer, and they want to make the spectacular play. Mike Rice has slowly worked that out of their system, but the tendency is still there. They should be right there at the end, even if it's not as pretty as winning 26-games like they did last year.
5. What Colonial newcomer will we be most impressed with in Emmitsburg?Rob Robinson. The Colonials brought six recruits in and will only dress two. Brandon Greene never stepped foot on campus and ended up at Cecil College (JuCo) in Maryland. Jason Burns came in and then left the school, not sure where he ended up. Russell Johnson came in this year to focus on academics and will suit up next year. Velton Jones was thrown a curveball by the NCAA when they ruled him a partial qualifier sometime in October. He was set to work behind Langhurst and Gary Wallace at the point, and the NCAA raised some questions about when he took his last class as a high school student. So he's practicing with the team but can't play in games. That leaves Josiah Whitehead, a 6'8 physical bulldog, and Rob Robinson. Whitehead is solid, but Robinson is a potential game-changer. He's 6'8, lanky, but extremely physical. He's from Waldorf, Maryland but he plays like he was brought up on the courts of Coney Island. He's strong, he throws his body around, and he's extraordinarily athletic. How he continues to progress, and how he handles the emotional rollercoaster of D-I basketball, remains to be seen, but his physical ability is very impressive.
6. Is this team sort of the type of team that will go as far as Jeremy Chappell takes it, or is there someone who can step up in his absence?
In the early going, it seemed that way. But as Bateko Francisco pointed out the other night, this team is at its best when it is sharing the ball. Chappell's going to get his 20+ points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals every night. But if someone else isn't going to add to that, no matter who it is, they won't win. Saturday's game against SFPA is a great indicator of what needs to happen every night. Robinson had 12 points and controlled play inside. Francisco had 12 points. Nine of the 11 dressed Colonials played, all nine played at least 15 minutes, and all nine scored. If Robinson has a quiet night, then Whitehead or Dallas Green or Iffy Ehirim needs to step up. Langhurst can pop off for 20 points at any moment. Gary Wallace is coming into his game as a sophomore. Mezie Nwigwe is harnassing his athleticism and cutting down on the mistakes. They need to be there along with Chappell, though, and that's something that they're still figuring out.
7. What do you expect out of this game?
Intense, physical play, with both teams around 65 points and 18 fouls. It's going to come down to turnovers and sharing the ball. Robert Morris will need to limit their own mistakes, not necessarily in allowing steals, but simply throwing the ball away or swatting at a rebound rather than actually pulling it down. The team that limits their mistakes and takes quality offensive chances will win the game, because both defenses are just too good to let the other team have multiple opportunities.