Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The web Richmond weaves; staying power of upset darlings

By Jared Trexler

Philadelphia, PA - Chris Mooney's personality is apparent in the game's critical nuances.

The Richmond head coach is detailed, diagramming his team's offensive set and structure with a precision that dots each "O" and "X." He is a proponent of spacing achieved through movement, emphasizing cutting, weaving, circling to positions on the floor that stretch a defense's ability to help and recover.

Mooney's offensive tenants were written on a stone tablet during his successful playing career for Pete Carril at Princeton, where he excelled in the famously- dubbed "Princeton" offense revolving around passing into the high post and backdoor cuts off the wings. Mooney was a four-year starter and ranks 20th on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,071 points.

His coaching career began at Lansdale Catholic in the Philadelphia suburbs, the same starting point of former Philadelphia 76ers head coach Jim Lynam. He then ventured to Beaver College (now called Arcadia University) in Glenside, Pennsylvania, where he was the head coach from 1997-2000.

His attention to detail caught the eye of another former Princeton player, Joe Scott, who hired Mooney as his assistant at Air Force prior to the 2000 season. He spent four seasons next to Scott before moving over to the head chair when Scott left to become the head coach at his alma mater. Mooney incorporated the core offensive principles of practicality and patience at the Academy, leading the Falcons to their second-best record in school history at 18-12.

The resume that led Mooney to his ultimate destination is not what makes Richmond what it is today, a team that doesn't beat itself, instead coaxing its opponents into its web and attacking as their caught flat-footed and out of position. Yet, his core values came from Carril and Scott, shaping his coaching virtues, and the Spiders into not just an Atlantic-10 power, but a team to keep a watchful eye on nationally as the season progresses.

After two transitional campaigns needed to bring in HIS players to run HIS system, Mooney went to a pair of College Basketball Invitationals before last season's 26-9 breakthrough that included victories over Florida, Mississippi State, Missouri and Xavier. The carpet ride ended against St. Mary's in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but the expectations set forth by Mooney formed a collective message of growth and greatness.

Don't settle. Great things happen to those who strive to be great.

The Spiders have a history of wearing glass slippers, holding the distinction of the only team to win NCAA Tournament games as a 12, 13, 14 and 15 seed. However, Mooney's program-building far exceeds the goal of Cinderella, rather focusing on putting the time in to become the prince.

The 2010 Spiders are led by Conference Player of the Year candidate Kevin Anderson, who has a real chance to be the program's second leading scorer by season's end. The undersized Anderson is Mooney's prototype, physically strong with an even stronger will. He gets his points, averaging 16.6 per game, and scores in bunches when the moment calls, case in point his 28-point bonanza in a signature late November victory over Purdue. Standing just 6-foot tall, he averages just over three rebounds per game and his unselfishness is apparent with his rapid ascent up the program's assists chart (currently holding steady at seventh).

Anderson has the rare combination of shooting smarts and an assassin-like stroke. He rarely forces shots, resulting in an impressive 48.5 percent field- goal percentage. He shoots a nearly identical percentage, 47.6 percent, from long distance, making him difficult to defend.

While the Spiders are Anderson's team, they aren't just Anderson, working in his four-year teammate Justin Harper, the perfect complement on the interior with 14 points and a team-best six rebounds per contest. The future is also bright with sophomore guard Darien Brothers learning alongside Anderson and adding productivity with 9.5 points per game, including 11 in the victory over the Boilermakers.

The team statistics point directly at Mooney's basketball principles. His team is offensively efficient (ninth nationally in field goal percentage at 50.3 percent) and unselfish (44th nationally with 15.8 assists per game). The Spiders aren't worried about scoring a lot of points because they rarely incorporate a transition offense, averaging 71.9 points per game (good for 134th in the nation). Richmond also releases its guards to avoid quick baskets in the opposite direction, leading to just 34.1 rebounds per contest, placing them near the bottom at 246th in that statistic.

On the defensive end, the Spiders hold opponents to just 59.8 points per game and 38.6 percent shooting, including an air-tight 26.8 percent from three- point range. The Spiders don't cause many turnovers because of Mooney's Princeton-oriented "man-you-ball" philosophy based on staying in front of the ball instead of attacking the player with it and jumping into passing lanes. Putting a hand in the face and slowing down tempo works, and these Spiders are implementing that philosophy to near perfection.

There have been some slip-ups like allowing a surprising 81 points to Iona in a four-point defeat, shooting just one foul shot in a seven-point setback to Old Dominion and laying a collective egg over this past weekend against Georgia Tech. Yet, the signature victories the tournament selection committee looks for when combing through teams' resumes are very apparent even at such an early juncture. Beating Purdue at a neutral site, winning across the country at Arizona State and pulling off a commanding 12-point victory over Virginia Commonwealth (which has already beaten UCLA and Wake Forest) all give the Spiders an edge up on the competition.

Mooney's work ethic, instilled first in his playing days under Carril, also place the Spiders at a competitive advantage each night. He is a perfectionist, anal about angles and precision on offense and simplistic, yet principled details on defense.

Who can argue with the results, and if they continue, Richmond may in fact achieve its goal. There may be no strike of midnight for these Spiders. They have the staying power to become the Atlantic 10's prince.


In a thin week for marquee matchups, most teams either loaded up with tutoring sessions for final exams or check-cashing smaller schools to fill up the schedule. A handful of those teams pulled shockers this week. Who are they? And do they have staying power?

Oakland Golden Grizzlies: Oakland is no stranger to recent postseason tournament play, defeating Alabama A&M in a 2005 play-in game before turning into North Carolina's first-round sacrificial lamb. The Golden Grizzlies also played in the 2009 CollegeInsider.com Tournament, downing Kent State in the first round before losing to Bradley. Oakland plays in the Summit League with an arena that seats just over 4,000, but it scheduled ambitiously in the early-season with what head coach Greg Kampe is calling one of his better teams. The Golden Grizzlies played Purdue tough into the second half before succumbing, 82-67, and held a four-point halftime advantage at Illinois before witnessing a Demetri McCamey show in the second half. They fell one point short against Michigan State before finally getting their season-defining victory at Tennessee, which had just won at Pittsburgh three days earlier.

ARE THEY FOR REAL? As real as the best team in the Summit League can be. The Golden Grizzlies, with a one- or two-loss conference slate, could be working themselves into 13-seed territory and a dangerous first-round opponent. They go through scoring lapses, but unlike other smaller schools, have the athletes to match any power-conference clubs, evidenced by their performance against the Big Ten and Tennessee.

Drexel Dragons: "Bruiser" is an apt first name for Dragons head coach Bruiser Flint, because the Dragons have spent their fist eight games pounding the competition. Drexel averages 43.9 rebounds per game on the season -- good for fourth nationally -- and outrebounded Louisville, 45-25, in a 52-46 victory at the KFC Yum! Center. The victory turned heads across the country, as the Dragons were far down the conference's preseason pecking order, behind more experienced names like Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and George Mason. Guard Chris Fouch is averaging just under 20 points per game, and Drexel presents three double-digit scorers.

ARE THEY FOR REAL? Likely not, unless you count NIT material. The Dragons have some disconcerting periphery numbers: 216th nationally in points per game, 215th in assists and 150th in field goal percentage. The victory at Louisville also included some stark outliers. Gerald Cobbs scored 20 points after netting just three against Rider three days earlier, and a Louisville team that shoots 45.2 percent as a team managed to make only 31.9 percent of its shots against the Dragons and just 12-of-25 free throws. The Dragons have trouble scoring and their large rebounding numbers have mostly come against inferior teams.

Illinois-Chicago Flames: The Flames sent a crescendo through the nation on Saturday with a shocking 57-54 victory over Illinois. They clamped down on McCamey, forcing him into a 4-of-11 shooting night and limiting the Illini to 32.7 percent shooting overall. The win snapped a four-game losing streak and sent the Flames out west (they play at Oregon State on Wednesday) on a high note.

ARE THEY FOR REAL? Talk about a wolf in sheep's clothing. The four-game losing streak wasn't murderers row: Valparaiso, Akron, Illinois State and Northern Illinois. Illinois-Chicago also lost to Pittsburgh by 43 and the College of Charleston by 12. In limited defense, each of its other five losses came by 10 points or less. The Flames' main issue is putting the basketball through the hoop, as they sit 289th in points per game and 238th in field goal percentage. It will take a lot of work and victories in close games to push the Flames into consideration for any postseason invite.


1. Duke (10-0): The real news will come with an official timetable regarding Irving. Until then, two non-descript games before the New Year.

2. Ohio State (10-0): Impressive waxing of South Carolina. Even more impressive? Jared Sullinger's 30 points, 19 rebounds and full ownership of the interior.

3. Kansas (10-0): Talk about a debut. Josh Selby's game-winning three-pointer in a harder-than-expected 70-68 victory over Southern California not only showcased the freshman's tremendous talent but his calmness under pressure and his desire to strive in such situations. He scored 21 points and got the ultimate compliment from head coach Bill Self after the win. "He has a lot of Sherron Collins in him." Quite the comparison for a kid who has played just one game.

4. Connecticut (8-0): The nearly two-week respite must have done wonders for Kemba Walker's legs...and maybe even his back. The guard has carried one of the nation's surprise teams.

5. Syracuse (11-0): I have been tough on the Orange, some may even say nitpicking to find flaws in their fast start. The fact remains they are 11-0, have a statement win over Michigan State and have been scoring more lately, following the victory over the Spartans with 100 points against Colgate and 83 in a win over Iona.

6. Pittsburgh (11-1): Carnage above them moves the Panthers up despite just an expected trouncing of Maryland Eastern Shore over the week.

7. San Diego State (12-0): I even thought about putting the Aztecs above the Panthers. San Diego State thumped a UC Santa Barbara team coming off the high of upsetting UNLV. The Aztecs are efficient (seventh nationally in field goal percentage) and tough, taking after their tournament-tested head coach, Steve Fisher. This team is for real.

8. Villanova (9-1): Wildcats next true tussle is December 30 against Temple. A good sign in the 78-59 victory over Delaware was Corey Fisher's 7-of-13 stat line as he slowly comes out of his early-season shooting slump. 

9. Missouri (10-1): The fast and the furious take its track-meet style to Kansas City as its opponent, Illinois, limps in off this past weekend's embarrassment. What should you look for? If Illinois runs with the Tigers, are they attacking the rim or settling for jump shots? If it is the latter, it will be a long night for Bruce Weber's Illini.

10. Georgetown (10-1): This makes six Big East teams in my top 10. Georgetown now faces identity-finding two-game road trip to Memphis and Notre Dame in conference opener.

11. Tennessee (7-2): The Volunteers slide following losses to Oakland and Charlotte, but not as far as one would expect. Their signature victories (Villanova and Pitt) outweigh those of the teams below them.

12. Kansas State (9-2): Talk about building a brick house. The Wildcats threw up clunker after clunker, making just 27 percent of their shots in a dismal offensive performance against Florida. Maybe Jacob Pullen really does miss playing off the ball when he had Denis Clemente alongside him in the backcourt last season. Pullen is shooting just 40 percent from the floor, which does not make this team a viable Final Four contender unless that number improves.

13. Kentucky (8-2): How a young team responds to adversity tells a lot about its potential. After the disappointing loss at North Carolina, Kentucky has rattled off three straight wins, including two against the likes of Notre Dame and Indiana.

14. Michigan State (8-3): The bizarre circumstances involving the one-game suspension handed down to head coach Tom Izzo was more of a story than the 39- point thumping of Prairie View.

15. Central Florida (10-0): I still think BYU and Richmond have more mid-major staying power and power-conference clubs like Baylor, Purdue and Texas have more long-term potential, but for the second time this season I feel compelled to include the Golden Knights, who have whipped up on the state of Florida, downing the Gators to go along with South Florida out of the Big East and now Miami out of the ACC. Marcus Jordan paces a team that shots better than 51 percent from the floor.


Enjoy the holidays with friends and family! We kick into high gear come the first of a new year.

No comments: