It can be demoralizing for a team picked to win the conference to enter conference play well below .500, and it takes a special kind of team — in a struggle well-known to mid-major programs — to dig out of that hole and assume their true position in the conference.
Robert Morris, to their credit, has done this flawlessly, going a cool 7-0 since finishing non-conference play 3-8. This run means they’re also just a half-game away from the best overall record in the conference, their 10-8 showing a shade below St. Francis Brooklyn’s 11-8.
Had some minor things gone differently, the Colonials could have entered the Northeast Conference season with a better record. Their worst loss was to the one power-conference team they faced, then-No. 14 Iowa, and nearly all the rest of their dropped games came by single-digit points. But in their 7-0 run in NEC play, they’ve won each game by an average of 19.7 points.
Tonight, the preseason favorites will take on the Sacred Heart Pioneers, the team picked to finish third in the conference whose six-game winning streak was recently halted by NEC defending champions Saint Francis U (who was picked to finish second this season). Unlike the Colonials, the Pioneers have won most of their conference games by single digits before suffering a 17-point loss to the Red Flash that dropped them to 6-1 on the season.
In NEC play, Robert Morris leads the pack in several categories, including scoring offense (tied with Saint Francis U at 71.1 points per game), scoring defense (51.4 points per game) and steals (8.4 per game). Their conference-leading margin of victory also bodes well for a repeat of last year’s meetings with the Pioneers, which they won by an average of 22.5 points apiece.
Sacred Heart, meanwhile, leads the conference in assists (16 per game) and blocked shots (5.1 per game), both areas where they are clear of the Colonials by several places.
Although the Colonials seem poised to win this game on the strength of their combined offense and defense just as they did last season, the Pioneers’ experience in close games — and not just being in them, as Robert Morris has, but winning them — could prove useful should the gap remain close heading into the final quarter.
Sacred Heart Pioneers (10-8, 6-1) at Robert Morris Colonials (10-8, 7-0)
When: Monday, Jan. 28, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: North Athletic Complex, Moon Township, PA
How to watch: NEC Front Row
Elsewhere in the NEC:
- The NEC Player of the Week (for the week ending Jan. 23) is Sacred Heart senior center Katherine Haines, whose 25 points, 15 rebounds and 11 blocks made her the first player to notch a triple-double in school history. In the Pioneers’ very next game, Haines eclipsed 1,000 career points in a 19-point effort.
- Mount St. Mary’s freshman guard Michaela Harrison is the NEC Rookie of the Week after two double-digit scoring outings, solidifying her status as not just one of the conference’s top-scoring freshmen, but also the 10th-highest-scoring player in the NEC this season. The Mountaineers host St. Francis Brooklyn tonight (7 p.m. ET, NEC Front Row).
- Bryant’s 4-3 record is one of the most deceptive in the NEC, as all three of those losses have been against the top three teams in the conference by fewer than three points apiece. Although the only loss not to come at home was the one-point defeat to Sacred Heart, that one, at least, is a result they could turn around when the Pioneers come to Rhode Island next month. The Bulldogs travel to face Farleigh Dickinson tonight (7 p.m. ET, NEC Front Row).
- The NCAA’s second-leading scorer a season ago, Saint Francis U guard Jess Kovatch is still lighting it up on a national level, as her 21.1 points per game this season place her at 14th in the country. Tonight, the Red Flash take on Wagner (7 p.m. ET, NEC Front Row).
- In tonight’s final clash, LIU Brooklyn will try to pick up its first conference win against 1-6 Central Connecticut (7 p.m. ET, NEC Front Row).