The most fun month in sports is finally back, nearly a year to the day since it was ripped away by an unprecedented global pandemic. We all remember where we were sitting when VCU and UMass abandoned the court following the A-10’s cancelation of its conference tournament. Everyone hoped it would be temporary, but unfortunately the uncertainty and anxiety of that moment set the tone for the rest of the year and the 2020-2021 college basketball season. The timing of everything could not have been worse for a group of seniors ready to prove they could lift the Spider program into the elite company of the A-10 and become perennial NCAA Tournament contenders. With the talent and timing to make back-to-back runs, they are instead facing a decade-long March Madness drought. Looking in the mirror, the preseason conference favorites’ stare is returned with an 8 seed in the Atlantic-10 Tournament and a daunting path to an auto-bid that could include Duquesne, St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis and VCU.
This does not paint the full picture, however. Richmond has suffered numerous injuries, including losing Nick Sherod, possibly the best shooter in the A-10, to a torn ACL before the season began. It lost Connor Crabtree for most of the season, who would have been the best scorer off the bench in years for a unit in dire need of depth. And now, one of its two leading scorers is a gametime decision for Thursday while the other continues to play through a broken finger.
These are fair explanations for what has happened this season, but not excuses. The roster is talented enough to get a Quad 1 win at Kentucky and pick up the conference’s best victory against Loyola-Chicago, so losing to La Salle, Hofstra and St. Joe’s at home is unacceptable, and the Spiders know it. I spoke with Chris Mooney on Tuesday to reflect on what has been one of the most tumultuous years both personally and professionally for everyone, especially a college basketball coach.
Noah: What have you witnessed this past year, and this past season, just for that group of seniors and what it’s been like for those guys?
Chris Mooney: For them to miss out on the NCAA Tournament last year, maybe to win the A-10 Tournament, to have such a different off season … and then Nick [got hurt], who is one of my favorite people in the world, how important he is to us, how steady he is, all the contributions he makes. I’ve asked them to be resilient so many times. And often, basketball resilience is “Hey, we lost on Wednesday. Let’s have a good start to the game Saturday.” That’s sometimes basketball resilience. This is such a different level of resiliency.
When they come back for their 25th reunion, the loss of that postseason, or Nick’s injury, those won’t be any better, those won’t be resolved.
Noah: Are you optimistic that some or all of your seniors may take that extra year of eligibility and come back next year?
Chris: I talked to our staff and said this is unusual enough with the testing and the protocols, I don’t want this year to be about next year. I want it to be about this year for them. I don’t want to recruit them; I want them to enjoy their experience. I want to socially-distanced hangout with them and talk to them about what they thought about playing at Dayton. I want to have those conversations and experiences. I don’t want us to be robbed of that because I’m saying, “Hey you know it’d be great [if they returned next year].” I feel like we have great relationships, and we recruited them honestly on the front end, and we’ve coached them honestly.
We haven’t talked about it [extra year of eligibility] by choice. I don’t want them to have that in the way. I don’t want that to get in the way of the organic happening of their senior season.
Now having said that, I don’t know. I’d have to sit down afterwards and talk to them. I think that it’s a different landscape everywhere. Most of this unique season has been negative, maybe that’s something that’s positive, but I have not had any conversations with the guys about that.
Noah: As a coach, as a dad, as a person, what has this tumultuous past year been like for you?
Chris: Let me first go as a dad, because that’s been the best part. I haven’t made a recruiting trip in a year, so I do more carpooling. Once youth sports started in late Spring/early Summer, it got way better because they were able to do stuff, so that part has been actually kind of nice.
Everything from the basketball part has been incredibly challenging. I feel like our team is built offensively, in every way, in our recruiting, in everything, it’s based on rhythm, accountability and honesty. Everybody handles the ball; everybody has responsibilities, there’s no lineman and quarterback. We’re religious about our routine. That’s how we build our chemistry; that’s how we recruit; that’s how we do everything.
The disruptive nature of this season has been really taxing and challenging. To the guys’ credit, they’ve been incredible. That has been fulfilling, and a great group to work with, but it makes me wish even more that it was normal. I think those routines, the consistency of what we’re trying to do is strengthened by the season. Now, I’m sure every coach would say for one reason or another it being disruptive, but that’s how I look at it for our team, is that rhythm and consistency and trying to perfect the daily routine. The interruption of that really is hard for us.
Noah: What have you learned about yourself dealing with those things, and those challenges of routine, both on a day-to-day basis and to a broader extent dealing with the fluidity of the season?
Chris: During the quarantine, not good, like anything I learned about myself [*laughs*] in quarantine. I’ve read a lot of articles about anxiety, and people have certainly been depressed, and they’re very worried about their children who aren’t at school. That type of thing is very real, to feel stuck. It’s unnatural.
Planning. Being nimble. Helping keep the guys together. Not being too high or too low. Those are positive qualities that we all have as a staff. It’s a consistency that we strive for here. I think that has helped our guys grow their own skin like that.
Noah: What would it have been like navigating this season with a young, maybe largely freshmen group rather than this senior-laden team?
Chris: Impossible. There are so many things that young players [have to learn]. Conditioning, number one. Then the learning of defensive principles; the learning of how we play, what’s expected in the weight room, in school. Those are incredibly taxing things. If you interrupt that process, it would be almost impossible.
These guys [seniors] have dealt with it really well, but there’s a knowledge of “man oh man, we’re sitting here and there’s three more opportunities we’re going to miss,” where as a freshmen team is thinking about what’s for dinner or the next assignment that’s due. They don’t know as much, so maybe there’s something positive about that.
Noah: You said after the game [Monday’s loss to St. Joe’s] that the locker room is feeling “deflated.” What has been the mood around the program this morning [Tuesday] and what your message was to them?
Chris: We met as a staff all morning talking about the guys [and] last night. If Matt Grace’s shot counts, we win and it’s such a different feeling. That’s sports.
I wanted to genuinely get us back to being as energized as we can be on Thursday at 11. I wanted to be genuine with the guys to let them know- obviously in a regular season you wouldn’t go from the third seed to the eighth seed if everyone’s played the same amount of games, which is just another reason this season is unusual. That was really hard. That was a tough way. We lose Blake in the first half, Grant’s injury, they’re much better with Ryan Daly back. Things are just unfortunate, but this is where we are, and our only thought is Thursday at 11 am we want to be at our best.
It was a pretty honest talk. We talked about the importance of tomorrow. Mainly the energy and concentration required tomorrow at 11 for practice. That’s our focus right now.
Noah: Did you think your team was energized and locked in heading into the St. Joe’s game?
Chris: Definitely. I thought we had a great practice and shoot around the day before and that day. I think the energy was good. I thought the energy from St. Joe’s was excellent, and I thought the energy from Richmond was really good.
We picked up full court every play [we could]. Them getting out and running in transition [early], and not that they scored every time, but setting a little bit of their tone for the game has more to do with us missing the shots [in the first half]. If we make two of those first five [shots], then we pick up full court, and then there’s a dribble deflected, and that happened a lot more in the second half, and they’re starting their possession with 15 seconds on the shot clock and Daly has just gotten the ball at the half court. I thought we had really good energy, really good concentration. It’s sometimes hard.
Noah: Nick Sherod said on our podcast on Friday that he felt like the team at times lost its focus, whether at times too caught up in rankings or brackets. Would you agree with Nick the team lost focus at times and should have set its blinders from day one on winning the A-10 Championship?
Chris: No, I wouldn’t. I think there have been many distractions, but I don’t think that we were distracted. We had three pauses, one because of false positives. Nick’s injury, Crab’s [Connor Crabtree] injury, the season starting later and finishing earlier. I think there are many distractions, but I don’t think we’ve been distracted.
Noah: Looking at Thursday’s game, it’s your second matchup with Duquesne this year, what things are you focusing on and adjusting looking at this game and approaching this tournament?
Chris: We have two issues. Our team, in terms of Grant and Blake, and then the matchup specifically with Duquesne. With Duquesne, they’re a team that really tries to own the paint, own the glass, everything that a traditional three-around-two, big and strong team does. We’re very different in that way in that we’re fluid, pass the ball a lot. It’s not as much pounding the ball inside as Duquesne does. That calls for our front court to really play a very physical team and be engaged physically and ready to go there, which puts a lot of pressure on everybody because some of those guys, you can’t just guard them with one guy. So you need to be alert to that, alert to your man and helping in the paint.
Offensively, I think it’s important for us to play the way we play and try to be as perfect as we can. Try to move the ball well. I feel like when we’re playing our best, there’s a good sense that everyone know where the shot’s going to come from. It’s not scripted, it’s just when that happens it’s familiar, it makes the shooter a bit more comfortable, it makes the ball movement a bit easier, and there’s a better chance of the ball going in. I think making sure we stay aggressive in the game here. Hopefully we can have fewer turnovers but still move the ball well and stay aggressive.
[End of Dialogue]
A tall task lies ahead for Chris Mooney and his Spiders. An auto-bid is this group’s last shot to go dancing, and that would likely require beating three teams Richmond is 0-3 against this season. While every college basketball program has dealt with adversity and confusion this year, Richmond’s injuries cannot be ignored. Maybe it is fair to not live up to the preseason #1 ranking. It is also fair to say finishing 8th in the conference is incredibly underwhelming for such a highly anticipated season.
Jacob Gilyard put it best after Monday night’s loss. “It’s time to win. At the end of the day, it’s now or never. If that message doesn’t get through to the team, then I don’t know what will.”
Chris Mooney Reflects On A Tumultuous 2020-2021 Regular Season was originally published on espnrichmond.com