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Richmond Spiders Men's Basketball Preview: Mooney Switches up the D 

click to enlarge The Spiders men's basketball team is known for churning out gutsy small guards and Jacob Gilyard (pictured) is another one. A solid 3pt shooter, he had five steals in their first game.

The Spiders men's basketball team is known for churning out gutsy small guards and Jacob Gilyard (pictured) is another one. A solid 3pt shooter, he had five steals in their first game.

Starting with a bang

The Richmond Spiders men’s basketball team kicked off its season with a thrilling, come-from-behind overtime victory over a tough, hot-shooting Saint Francis team on Friday, Nov. 8 at the Robins Center.

The Spiders were down 10 points with around a minute and a half left when they turned up the defensive pressure with a tenacious full-court press and came up with multiple steals that sent the game into overtime.

While still not a great rebounding team, this year’s team looks hungrier and more focused on the defensive end, as evidenced by preseason All-Atlantic 10 first team point guard Jacob Gilyard, who recorded five steals to go with 24 points and 8 assists. Gilyard is always near the top of the steals category for Division I teams, and this year he'll have another speedy guard with quick hands, Wagner transfer Blake Francis, to help.

Coach Chris Mooney and the team are glad to have sharpshooter Nick Sherod back after their top scorer sat out most of last season with a torn ACL. In his first official game back, the St. Christopher's grad tallied 27 points and looked comfortable knocking down the long ball at the new, increased distance. Then again, nearly all the players on the court looked comfortable shooting. Both teams were raining threes. The Spiders have to be feeling good about this first win, during which they maintained their poise down the stretch, taking good shots and making big defensive plays.

New look defense and balanced scoring

Richmond returns 90 percent of its scoring from last season. The preseason A-10 Blue Ribbon forecast picked the Spiders to finish 9th in the conference, with Davidson and VCU as the number 1 and 2 teams, respectively. That finish seems low to me; this is a top 5 team in the A10 if the injury bug doesn't bite.

It's probably the deepest team Mooney has had since the team made the NCAA tournament in 2011 – with at least 10 players in regular rotation. So far, he’s been subbing at a quick clip, keeping fresh legs on the floor and trying out different combinations.

Projected starters include: Gilyard, who's becoming more of a vocal leader, and speedy newcomer Blake Francis, an exciting transfer from Wagner, at the guard positions. Sherod and Nathan Cayo will be at the forward spots and preseason A-10 second team honoree Grant Golden will hold it down at center. Golden has lost a good 20 pounds, after a summer of working out with NBA players like James Harden in Texas, and he already looks improved in early action. When Golden's inside game is flowing, the Spiders are a potent offensive team, since he can find cutters well, or dish back outside for an open three.

Another key for this team is Cayo, who increased his scoring by 10 points last season, and whether he can take another step. So far, he looks good with a spring in his step on offense. He had several dunks in game one as well as a big-time shot block.

The Spiders have a number of solid 3-point shooters (Sherod, Gilyard, Francis) and Mooney is known for offenses that move the ball. Regarding defense, he told media the Spiders will be using more man-to-man defense this year, providing more mixed looks to opponents.

The first wave of players coming off the bench for Mooney will include 6’4” guard Andre Gustavson, a solid defender, back-up point guard Jake Wojcik, and highly intriguing freshman forward, Tyler Burton. Already one of their most athletic players, Burton made several key hustle plays in Friday’s thriller, including solid defense (see block pictured), a steal and breakaway dunk at a critical point in the game. With a nice wingspan, this kid’s got a some bounce and could be a highlight machine for the Spider faithful.

If you're a player, you don't want to see a trap coming at you from Gilyard and Burton.

click to enlarge Center Grant Golden and freshman Trey Burton smush an opponent's shot during the home opener.
  • Center Grant Golden and freshman Trey Burton smush an opponent's shot during the home opener.

Looking ahead

This is a big year for Coach Chris Mooney, who experienced some disgruntled fans last year (who actually took out a billboard) namely because the Spiders haven't returned to the tournament since their 2011 Sweet 16 experience, lacking momentum when compared to VCU.

But the fact remains that Mooney has been hurt by player transfers and the dismissal of De'Monte Buckingham -- and this is the first year he's been able to build on returning players. He'll be looking to steal a few big wins during the season (as he's been known to do) and perhaps win a bid to the NCAA tournament by winning the A-10 tourney.

The Spiders schedule makes it tough for them to secure an at-large bid, especially in a resurgent year among A-10 teams. If they don't make the tournament, however, you could see this exciting team in the National Invitational Tournament.

Of course, as a fan of Hoop Town (or Cinderella City), I pull for both the Spiders and the Rams to be in the tournament. Crazy things happen when they get there -- just ask Charles Barkley.

The Spiders have their next three games at home. Next up on Thursday, Nov. 14 are the Vanderbilt Commodores (1-0), coached by former Tarheel and NBA star Jerry Stackhouse in his first season with the team. The Spiders will continue to hone their pesky defense against Cal State-Northridge (Nov.17), McNeese State (Nov. 22), before heading to Brooklyn for the Roman Legends Classic with early tests against Wisconsin on Nov. 25 (airing on ESPN) then either Auburn (currently ranked #24) or New Mexico.

A couple other games to mark on your calendar: before conference play begins, the Spiders will travel to Alabama on Dec. 29 for a match-up with the Crimson Tide. And their first crosstown rivalry game, the Lumber Liquidators Capital Classic, takes place at VCU on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

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