Bechtold’s Breakdowns: Potential challenges facing Robert Morris entering Horizon League

Photo+Credit%3A+Erik+Schmidt

Photo Credit: Erik Schmidt

By Austin Bechtold, Assistant Sports Editor

Well… here we are.

Today was supposed to be the first game back for the Robert Morris men’s basketball team against the Point Park Pioneers since RMU captured their final NEC Championship trophy to welcome in a new era at the UPMC Events Center.

It may just be a sign of the times, but the road to returning to collegiate athletics and some sort of normalcy in 2020 has been more challenging than ever before.

As Robert Morris prepares for their first year as the 12th member of the Horizon League, excitement has continued to build on what could be next for a number of the university’s most successful programs.

The Colonials returning to action at some point in the 2020-21 school year is contingent on the effects of COVID-19, further delaying RMU’s first appearance in their new conference.

The coronavirus is obviously the most noticeable challenge for Robert Morris and its neighboring schools, leaving the state of athletics rapidly changing by the day for the foreseeable future.

The virus could prevent student-athletes from participating in competition entirely, making a tough decision to withhold themselves from the season due to concerns of potential exposure. Another challenge is the effects of a college athlete contracting the virus and the ramifications for the rest of the team and coaching staff. This could postpone upcoming games on the schedule until everyone affected by the exposure is tested and results in multiple negative tests. This procedure has been used by Major League Baseball and will most likely be copied by other sports not competing in a bubble type atmosphere.

Games have already been shuffled or postponed because of the virus, especially for men’s basketball. The program announced on Thursday the postponement of three non-conference games including the previously schedule season opener against Point Park on November 25, away at Central Michigan on November 28, and home for Florida Gulf Coast on December 2. The Colonials must use this as a learning experience and further prepare themselves for the road ahead once they return to the court.

The virus won’t be the only opponent standing in the way of the Colonials’ first stab at the Horizon League schedule. A new set of opponents awaits Robert Morris when athletics ramp back up again. RMU consistently dominated NEC competition, especially in 2019-20, but with increased competition and arguably better talent awaiting them, the Colonials will have a tough task on their hands.

It would not be surprising to see most programs struggle as league competition first begins, transitioning to new road facilities, tougher competition, and an overall change of scenery. The Horizon League consists of Cleveland State, Wright State, Detroit Mercy, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Northern Kentucky, Purdue Fort Wayne, Oakland, Illinois Chicago, IUPUI, and Youngstown State.

Volleyball, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball, RMU’s most successful programs last year, will have their hands full with top league competition.

Starting with volleyball, the Colonials finished 25-5 overall, 15-1 in the NEC, but after a dominating regular season fell to Central Connecticut in the conference tournament semi-finals. They will be tasked with knocking off last year’s No. 1 team Wright State and conference champion Northern Kentucky in the standings to make their presence known.

Northern Kentucky hasn’t just been a consistent threat in volleyball, the school’s men’s basketball program also took home the Horizon League championship for the second year in a row. The team lost their top two leading scorers Dantez Walton and Tyler Sharpe, but should still be a threat in the conference.

Women’s basketball was dominated by IUPUI in many statistical categories and was considered the best team both offensively and defensively in the conference. Robert Morris, always atop the NEC standings, will have to go through the Jaguars to earn a birth in the NCAA tournament.

A third challenge that the Colonials could face is the aspect of new travel during the 2020-21 season. Although Youngstown State will be a short one hour trip up the interstate, RMU will travel west instead of east for every conference matchup. Previously, the farthest west team in the NEC, Robert Morris becomes the school closest to the east coast and the only university in Pennsylvania representing the Horizon League. The longest road trip for the Colonials comes 10 hours and five minutes away against Green Bay, farther than RMU’s nine hours and 49-minute commute to Merrimack, which was their furthest trip in the NEC.

Additionally, the absence or a limited number of fans packing arenas and stadiums for critical conference battles will make games less exciting, with an atmosphere dissolved of emotion and passion coming from the stands. The value of fans cannot be understated, as teams can ride the wave of emotion flowing into the building to create a potential spark on the court and playing field. Looking at a game full of cardboard cutouts may be the norm for the foreseeable future, but let’s hope not. The games are played for the fans and the pure desire to win at all costs, making sporting events compelling and meaningful for die-hard fans and players who live and breathe the sport.

Finally, one new wrinkle that Robert Morris will tackle pertains to the location of conference semi-final and championship games in basketball. During their reign of the NEC, RMU was able to host the men’s and women’s basketball championship as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. In the Horizon League, the final two rounds are held at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis and will be through 2022. Softball, volleyball, men’s soccer, and women’s soccer are all hosted by the league’s top regular-season program, providing the opportunity to win a championship in front of the home crowd. This may become a challenge for RMU basketball, who usually experiences an increased fan presence the closer Robert Morris comes to a championship.

The Colonials entering the Horizon League delivers excitement and new opportunities around every athletic program, but the transition may not be smooth sailing. Robert Morris will face numerous challenges, but will ultimately find their decision to join the Horizon League as one of the best in school history.