The Robert Morris Eagles are going to play both Loyola-Chicago and Northwestern this week. The casual fan might not know who the Eagles are, but followers of NAIA basketball sure do. Robert Morris is a perennial power at that level. This season the Eagles are ranked #1 in the NAIA Preseason Poll after making the NAIA semifinals last season.
Last season the Eagles lost to the Ramblers 65-57, but they pulled off the 7-point upset against Northwestern 69-62. Why is Robert Morris ranked so high? Why do the Eagles give NCAA Division I schools fits? Because Robert Morris has a number of quality players.
Robert Morris has always been a haven for those Chicago-area basketball players that need another chance. One of the Eagles' most famous former players is Othyus Jeffers. He was named the D-League's Rookie of the Year last season. Jeffers started his career out at UIC, but transferred to Robert Morris before heading to the professional ranks.
That is the case again this season. The Eagles feature a familiar face in former UIC forward Robert Eppinger. Eppinger averaged 5.4 points per game and 3.9 rebounds per game in 18.2 minutes per game last season for the Flames. He was going to be a key part of the Flames' rebuilding efforts before academic troubles reportedly led him to Robert Morris. Now he'll be a key player in the Eagels' frontcourt as they battle against players like Northwestern's Kevin Coble and Loyola's Andy Polka.
Another newcomer this season would be a familiar face to DePaul junior college recruit Mike Stovall. Sean Scott played with Stovall at Mineral Area College last season. While there Scott averaged 6 points per game, 5 assists per game and 3 rebounds per game. Also joining Robert Morris this season is James Westberry. Westberry played at NCAA Division II Tuskegee last season. He averaged 4.9 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game and 1 assist per game in 15.2 minutes per game. Then there's Ricardo Laing. Laing was one of the top scorers in NJCAA Division II last season while scoring 21.2 points per game at CCBC-Dundalk.
All of the new faces will complement the talented players already on Robert Morris' roster. Reggie Bunch is one of the most talented players in NAIA. At 6'6" the wing has the size to play at any level. Last season he averaged 15.6 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game. He's complemented on the court by another swingman, Billy Rush. Rush is 6'7" and can also light up the scoreboard at 10.4 points per game and 5.4 rebounds per game last season.
Robert Morris likes to use all of it's talent to get out and run up and down the court. The Eagles also have an advantage in that they've played two games already this season. A little warm-up is certainly helpful in establishing chemistry amongst so many new faces.
Against Northwestern last season the Eagles managed to get the Wildcats running with them. That will be the key for them again this season. In the game against Loyola on Monday night it will probably come down to experience, as in Robert Morris has it and the Ramblers don't. Whether that's enough to pull the "upset" is another question. Both games are certainly worth keeping an eye on as Robert Morris is a quite worthy opponent.