Robert Morris (0-0) at University of Pennsylvania (0-0)
Where: The Palestra, Philadelphia, PA
When: November 13, 5:30 p.m.
KenPom: Robert Morris 199, Penn 222
KenPom Line: Penn -3
Link: ESPN3.com, WatchESPN app
Storyline: College basketball is back. The defending NEC champs will open the season at the University of Pennsylvania, which doubles as the alma mater of Robert Morris head coach Andy Toole. Toole, who is regarded as one of the program’s best players, helped Penn post back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2002 and 2003.
Getting to know the Quakers: Last year, Penn finished 9-19 overall with a 4-10 Ivy League mark. That was enough to end the Jerome Allen era, as he was relieved of his duties after five seasons as head coach.
In comes former Boston College head coach Steve Donahue. Donahue put together some solid seasons during his time in the ACC but ultimately met his demise after an 8-24 mark last year.
Ironically, prior to his time at BC, Donahue dominated the Ivy League. He built up Cornell over a nine year span, getting them to the NCAA tournament three times. He’ll have to do it again at Penn.
Donahue is already facing adversity. Guard Tony Hicks, who led the team in scoring last season, abruptly decided to leave the team just a few weeks ago. Hicks was going to enter his senior season as one of the top guards in the conference. It’s a big relief RMU doesn’t have to go toe-to-toe with him.
Let’s not get it twisted though — even with Hicks, Penn was a dreadful offensive team last season. In a loss to Harvard, they scored just 38 points. If they reached 70, it was a party. Penn averaged 96 points per 100 possessions (bad) and 94 points in conference play (super bad) last season. If RMU brings it on the defensive end, the Quakers will have a hard time getting the ball in the basket.
Hicks was the only player to average double figures in scoring. With him no longer in the picture, look for forward Darien Nelson-Henry and wing Matt Howard to become the go-to options.
The biggest matchup problem will take place in the frontcourt. Nelson-Henry and Sam Jones (6.3 points, 2.0 rebounds-per-game) make up a pretty nice combo. The rest of the returning guys all measure up to be around 6-foot-7. RMU will have to make a consistent effort to box out and avoid second chance opportunities.
Health concerns?: RMU isn’t rolling into the Palestra as the healthiest bunch. Aaron Tate has only practiced on and off for the last few weeks. I think he’ll play, but conditioning will be an issue. How long he can go, I’m not sure anyone knows.
On top of that, freshman Isaiah Still has been in and out of practice with some sort of injury. I’ve even heard Rodney Pryor got dinged up in a secret scrimmage at Kent State on Sunday and isn’t feeling his best. How Toole manages the bench will be something to keep an eye on.
Opening blues: If it feels like Robert Morris is really bad to start the season, you wouldn’t be wrong. In the last two seasons, RMU has gone a combined 9-18 in non-conference play. Obviously, some of that has been at the mercy of a brutal non-conference schedule, but it would be nice to see the Colonials take advantage of a winnable game.
RMU owns a 3-15 mark in road openers. Their last win to start the season on the road came on Nov. 22, 2002 at University of Missouri Kansas-City.
Outlook: This is the type of game the coaching staff must love. It’ll be tough, but certainly winnable. I’m not sure how the frontcourt is going to respond, but RMU has the guard play to come away with a win.
One other thing to keep an eye on: tempo. Traditionally, Steve Donahue teams play at a slower pace. Penn just lost their best guard and probably feel like they can get into a slugfest with RMU’s undersized frontcourt. I wonder if RMU tries to push in transition to use their athleiticsm and work in a few extra possessions.