While the Robert Morris Colonials and the Belmont Bruins would rather be dancing, they capitalized on what was actually in front of them in the opening round of the NIT. Robert Morris absolutely stunned St. John's on the road last Tuesday, connecting on 16-32 three-pointers in a game that they led wire-to-wire. Belmont forced Green Bay, the Horizon League regular-season champion, into 21 turnovers on their way to an 80 - 65 victory in Wisconsin that same night.
Both teams had three days to get ready for this battle of conference regular-season champions. So what are some of the keys to tonight's game?
Bruins' Offense vs. RMU's Defense:
Belmont is perhaps the most efficient offensive team that the Colonials will face this season. The Bruins rank second in the nation in eFG% at 58.2 percent; they are also the best team in Division I on two-pointers, converting at 57.6 percent. That doesn't bode well for a Robert Morris defense that has allowed their opponents to shoot 52.7 percent on their two-point shots - 317th in D-1.
Of course, it's going to depend on the kind of two's that Belmont takes against the aggressive 2-3 zone of RMU. All five starters for the Bruins finish at the rim at a rate of at least 59 percent. Senior forward Blake Jenkins takes 75 percent of his attacks at point-blank range, and converts an impressive 70.4 percent of them.
Given the fact that Belmont also starts four players who are shooting at least 34 percent on three-pointers, it's going to be very difficult to deny looks around the rim while also being disciplined in the zone to account for all the shooters.
I would expect the Bruins to take a long look at how Mount St Mary's attacked the Colonials. Although, they could potentially be much more efficient than the Mount, which is a scary proposition for Robert Morris fans.
RMU is the 25th best team in the nation in terms of three-point percentage; they are connecting on 38.9 percent of their attempts. However, Belmont is even better. They make 39.3 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc, good for 15th in the country.
The Bruins launch the three-ball frequently; 41.5 percent of all their field goal attempts are triples. The Colonials don't pull the trigger nearly as often; only 34.3 percent of their attempts are three-pointers.
Neither team is particularly good at defending the three, Robert Morris ranks 128 (33.6 percent) and Belmont ranks 167 (34.3 percent) in all of Division I.
Generally, zones aren't great at taking away three-pointers. RMU changed to a zone during the non-conference portion of their schedule (against Toledo) largely because of the changes in how the officials called contact around the basket and hand checks around the perimeter. I wouldn't be surprised if the Colonials mix in a little bit of man-to-man to try and throw the Bruins off.
Belmont is going to have to be sharp on their rotations as Robert Morris will run them through a bevy of dribble handoffs and screens.
Whichever team gets hot from the outside is going to have an advantage, but given how well both teams stroke it, neither team will be out of the game.
Senior guard/forward J.J. Mann, the OVC Player of the Year, is definitely the alpha bear for the Bruins. He averages 18.1 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game, 2.6 assists per game, and 2.1 steals per game. Mann does everything for this Belmont team, and he is perhaps the most versatile threat that RMU will face all season.
Sophomore guard Craig Bradshaw is second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game, and likes to attack the basket. He attempts 47 percent of his attempts at the rim, and converts at a very nice rate of 67.3 percent.
The Bruins are very much a team, though. They have four players who average double-figures in scoring: Mann, Bradshaw, junior point guard Reece Chamberlain, and senior forward Drew Windler. Their top-six players in terms of scoring also average at least 3.3 rebounds per game, and their top-four players all average at least 1.2 assists per game.
The Colonials are led by senior guard Karvel Anderson, the NEC Player of the Year. The sharpshooter from Elkhart, Indiana dropped a career-high 38 points against the Red Storm on Tuesday, and will need to pick up where he left off in order for Robert Morris to stay in the game offensively.
Anderson can score from any spot on the floor, and he specializes in being able to shoot off the dribble. He also can finish around the rim. While he only takes 15.5 percent of his shots around the basket, he converts at 65.8 percent, which leads the team. He is shooting the three-ball at 46.2 percent, and he'll need to make around eight or nine against Belmont for his team to have a chance.
Junior guard/forward Lucky Jones is also going to need to build off a strong performance against St. John's. Jones was sensational in the first half, scoring 20 points, but slowed down in the second half, finishing with 23 points. He leads the team in rebounding at 6.8 rebounds per game, and he crashes the glass on both ends of the floor for RMU.
Windler is the kind of stretch-four that the Colonials haven't really faced this season. He leads the Bruins in three-point percentage at 47 percent, and takes 70 percent of his shots from long distance. At 6'9, it will be hard for any Robert Morris defender to deny him a good look.
The high post is the best place to attack the 2-3 zone of RMU. If Windler finds success there or Mann, it will be a tough night for the Colonials.
For Robert Morris, everyone is going to have to elevate their game alongside Anderson and Jones. The team might not have junior guard David Appolon because of a foot injury that he suffered against the Red Storm. His versatility, particularly on the defensive end is an important cog in the 2-3 zone for RMU.
If the Colonials are left with just seven active players, it will be hard for them to emerge victorious. St. John's was disinterested on Tuesday night, but they won't have that same luck against a veteran Belmont team at home. It seems like the Bruins have a little more room for error, and are razor-sharp offensively.
Robert Morris always has a chance, though. I certainly wouldn't count them out. If they can get hot from the outside, and force Belmont into stretches in which they take contested jumpers, they'll certainly have a chance. They may need to make the game 'ugly' in order to take the Bruins out of their rhythm.
KenPom has Belmont winning 80 - 71, and only a 20 percent chance of RMU pulling the upset.
No. 8 Robert Morris vs. No. 5 Belmont
Where: Curb Event Center, Nashville, TN
When: 9:30 p.m., Friday