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Boy has it been a long time since the Spiders rolled through Duquesne, securing the second seed in the never-to-be 2020 Atlantic-10 Tournament. A lot has happened in the time since: Tiger King, aliens, murder hornets, the social justice movement in wake of the murder of George Floyd, Tom Brady dawning a new uniform, an abundance of terrible Netflix dating shows, Chadwick Boseman’s death and of course Joe Biden winning the most important U.S. election of the century. But after what feels like a lifetime, the light at the end of the tunnel is imminent: college hoops are back!
Richmond landed in Lexington, Kentucky on Tuesday for the Bluegrass Showcase, and as far as I know Jack Harlow’s girl is not involved in any capacity. The multi-team event originally featured four teams, however a positive COVID-19 test grounded Detroit Mercy back in Michigan, so the Spiders’ season opener will wait until Friday, a 6 pm tilt with Morehead State (you may remember these guys).
It is a reality that all of college basketball must unfortunately face this season: games will be canceled. Expected or not, losing the first game of the season was not the way Richmond wanted to open things up. “At the end of the day, it could happen a lot more. You know, it could happen five more times this season, or it could not happen at all,” Jacob Gilyard told me on Wednesday. “At the end of the day, it’s just about making adjustments,” he continued.
Regardless of the uncertainty, the Spiders at last made their first road trip and practiced in Rupp Arena on Wednesday. Chomping at the bit, those first steps onto the charter plane may have been the most calming moments these players have felt since that final March game in Pittsburgh. “It kind of felt back to normal. I hadn’t been on the little jet in a while,” Gilyard said. “You start to feel a little bit of normalness, but then obviously the game got canceled,” elaborating, “It’s still a little weird, been trying to get adjusted, but it felt like basketball.”
Richmond has lofty expectations this year as preseason conference-favorites after a 24-win 2019-2020 campaign, even with a season-ending injury to Nick Sherod. What better way to commence one of the biggest (and weirdest) seasons than with a road matchup against a top-10 opponent, leading into one of the toughest non-conference schedules of any A-10 team?
Before getting to the star-studded Wildcats, do not breeze over Morehead State. Richmond kicked off last season with two overtime nail biters, squeaking out wins against lesser opponents in St. Francis (PA) and Vanderbilt respectively. In a shortened season with the potential to lose even more resume-building games, it is crucial for mid-major teams such as the Spiders to assert their style of basketball and win these types of games in dominant fashion. “It’s very important. As you said, we haven’t got off to the hottest starts towards the beginning of the year,” the Bob Cousy Award Watchlist member said. “It’s very important to set a tone, especially because we have younger guys on the team,” he explained. Kenpom gives the Spiders a 96% win probability Friday against the #320-ranked Eagles, but crazier things have happened (just ask their second opponent about Evansville).
The young guys Gilyard mentioned may have a larger role than expected over the summer. With Tyler Burton thrust into the starting lineup and Tulane-transfer Connor Crabtree set to miss the first two games, this talented freshman class needs to step up. In a 40-minute game, depth is less important than at the pro-level, however Richmond’s potent offense hit ruts when the starting five was not on the court together last year. The only players off the bench with an offensive rating above 100 were Andre Gustavson (102.1) and Jake Wojcik (109.4), who transferred to Fairfield.
Quick notes from practice:
Tyler’s 3pt looked locked in
Isaiah Wilson’s defense could help him get on the court more than I thought before
Matt Grace needs a haircut
— Noah Goldberg (@NoahGoldberg10) October 29, 2020
Blake Francis was a major addition a season ago, lifting much of the scoring load from Gilyard’s shoulders. The two can lead Richmond to a top-3 A-10 finish at 37+ minutes, but to make the leap to a certified at-large contender, the bench needs to do more than tread water. Freshman Isaiah Wilson may do just that. Discussing players who have stepped up in recent weeks with the looming absence of Crabtree and Sherod, Francis told me Wednesday that the 6’0” guard was showing out on both sides of the ball. “Isaiah has been playing pretty well these past couple weeks. He’s a scrappy kind of guard, you know. [He] likes to defend, likes to get into his player on defense. I think he’s been playing really well,” Francis said.
Wilson has the mentality of an upperclassmen, which should help him transition to the college level quicker. “I’ve never seen a freshman come to college with as much confidence in his game,” Sherod said on the Spider Scoop Podcast. That said, the jump in game speed and athleticism from high school to college is no joke. Amplify that 1000 notches against a Kentucky team jam packed with five-star recruits. “I was so tired after my first game. You don’t realize how fast everybody is,” Sherod reflected. “We got to Barclays and we played Maryland. They had Melo Trimble and [Kevin] Huerter and those guys, and you like man, wow, this is just a different speed.” This is coming from a player who started nearly half of his games as a freshman, a duty Wilson will not be tasked with.
Richmond has shown an ability to get it done against Power-5 teams in recent years, notably conquering the eventual Big-10 champion Wisconsin Badgers by 10 in last year’s Legends Classic. The matchup with Kentucky is like nothing this team has seen before, however. I do not mean this in that it is an unwinnable game, quite the opposite in fact, but rather about the roster makeups. The November 25th victory in Brooklyn was against a Badger squad starting four juniors and a sophomore, with senior Brevin Pritzl snagging 26 minutes off the bench.
John Calipari has pioneered the one-and-done strategy with the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and others. Calipari started three five-star freshmen in Devin Askew, B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke against Morehead State Wednesday, along with four-star freshman Isaiah Jackson and Wake Forest-transfer Olivier Sarr. It may be the most talented lineup in the nation, but also one of the most inexperienced. No team is more equipped to punish indecisiveness and careless play than the Spiders, whose defense is anchored by the former national steals leader and A-10 Defensive Player of the Year in Gilyard. The four starting Wildcat freshmen combined for nine turnovers against the Eagles Wednesday, so look for him and Francis to be in their face like pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner.
It is tough to evaluate a team that starts four players who had not seen a minute of college action until this week. Such a young team will be careless with the ball at times, as Calipari made clear in his presser on Monday. Regarding preparation for a team with so many unknowns, Gilyard explained, “It’s tough, you know, anytime you get guys that are new guys or transfers or young guys … It’s tough to try to figure out their tendencies.”
As tough as it is to figure out those tendencies for Richmond, the disadvantage still sits with the Wildcats in that aspect. They may be tough to scout but only because they themselves likely do not know their strengths and style yet. Gilyard continued, “They have to play us too. At the end of the day they’re going to have to scout for us; they’re going to have to prepare for our offense, for our defense, for things we do as well.”
These two teams are polar opposites in the experience department, but both vaunt deep rotations. This Friday, Chris Mooney could go 11 deep, with Andre Gustavson, Sal Koureissi, Matt Grace, Djimon Bailey, Wilson and Andre Weir all possibly hitting the floor. Depending on the flow of the game, there is a good chance the six all touch the court again on Sunday, if in limited minutes. Burton will more than handle his starting role, but the sophomore did average 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes last year. If he gets in early foul trouble guarding the 6’ 10” Jackson, Koureissi may be the next man up.
Garbage time aside, Calipari went five men into his bench on Wednesday. The cavalry features two four-star freshmen in the 6’ 9” Lance Ware and 6’ 6” Cam’Ron Fletcher. Fletcher dropped nine points on 4-5 FG as the two combined for 10 rebounds in the blowout victory. Sophomore Jacob Toppin, URI-transfer and brother of former Naismith Player of the Year Obi Toppin, is no slouch either. Spider fans may recall his 12-point, eight-rebound performance in a home loss to Richmond last January with the Rams. He looked sloppy on Wednesday, committing two turnovers in nine minutes of play, but that is not surprising for a young transfer after such a wonky offseason.
From experience to continuity to a diminished home court advantage, the Spiders have everything going for them besides health. Ultimately talent talks though, and Kentucky has plenty of it. It is the ultimate battle of traditional college basketball and new-age roster turnover. As Francis and Gilyard both emphasized in interviews, their sights are set on Morehead State, but do not fault yourselves for being giddy about game two.
The Richmond basketball season officially tips off Friday night at 6 pm, with coverage on ESPN 99.5 FM. The ultimate game of the Bluegrass Showcase will be at 1 pm on Sunday.