At the risk of exaggeration, I'm not really sure there's anything comparable to non-conference play in college basketball. Much is made about how every game in college football matters -- though that's not necessarily the case -- and in professional sports, there's a sort of consistency to the schedule where games pretty much have equal importance until teams start trying to capture playoff spots in the final few weeks.
But college basketball's different, especially when it comes to mid- and low-major teams like Robert Morris. If you look at things from a purely theoretical standpoint, a team could lose all of its regular season games and still make the NCAA tournament by simply winning its conference tournament. This isn't completely true, as the Ivy League's bid goes to its regular season champion and other leagues like the NEC only have the top eight-or-so teams make their conference tournament.
Still, the basic premise is the same -- league play, and particularly the conference tournament, is fundamentally all that matters, at least to some.
I touched on this notion a little bit for a story in today's paper and for that piece, I asked Andy Toole a question before Robert Morris' practice on Monday. Simply, with NEC play starting Thursday, is this when the season effectively begins?
“The season started 15 games ago. If you’re going to take the attitude that the season starts once conference play starts, then why do you even schedule the other games? It’s such a defeatist attitude, it’s unbelievable. The season’s been going on since August 28 when we had our first team meeting preparing for this year.”
Part of the problem with sports is that outside observers -- writers like myself, fans, etc. -- see the end result, but don't often witness all of the time and work that gets put into the product (i.e. a team). When your livelihood depends on the development of that team to succeed for an entire season, as is the case with Toole, every game matters. It's the same for players.
His point is an understandable one. For someone like Toole, whose job is a time-consuming one, it's a little insulting to say that only two months of that grind actually amount to anything.
But there's more to it.
Non-conference play is sort of a feeling-out-process, a two-month period in which teams can get accustomed to one another and improve in areas of need. It will never, or hardly ever, define a season, but it helps set the table for it. For a team like Robert Morris, there is a certain trace of hope in this reality. The Colonials have six new scholarship players on their roster this season, a number which has been well documented. As have their struggles trying to adjust to those changes.
Whether or not they actually learned or gained anything from these first 15 games remains to be seen. Not until the end of the season will we know what effect it might have had.
Though non-conference play may not be worthless for the sport's lower-level programs, league play presents a second chance for teams that need one. Robert Morris' non-NEC games all add up to something, whatever it may be at this time, but they don't necessarily get them closer to where every program like it aims to be at the end of the season -- the NCAA tournament.
It's unfair to say that the Colonials' season starts tonight, but it'd be delusional to say that these games don't mean more. At this point, the past lingers, but it's firmly behind the team. It's always with them, but it won't dictate how they do in the coming two months and if things start to break the right way for them (or if they get that whole defense thing figured out), they can end up where they hoped to all along. Or not.
And perhaps that's the beauty of it all.
and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG