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Season’s eve has arrived for Richmond basketball.  The Spiders will face off against the St. Francis (PA) Red Flash on Friday in the Robins Center to kickoff a highly anticipated season.  After months of debating whether or not Chris Mooney deserves a job, whether the Spiders can return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, can anyone (anyone at all??) get a rebound and whether I deserve a walk-on spot after beating Tyler Burton in a game of HORSE, real basketball is at last in our midst.

Richmond prevailed over Randolph-Macon College (D-3) in a scrimmage Friday that wasn’t accurately represented by the box score.  In a 70-57 Spider victory, Richmond held RMC to 34 FG% and 24 3FG% while forcing 12 Yellow Jacket turnovers.  

These shooting numbers are disingenuous, however.  Richmond was continuously beat off the dribble, leading to constant kickouts to the three point line, which RMC failed to capitalize on.  Besides the fact that D-1 opponents will knock down more open looks, it’s far easier to closeout against RMC shooters with the “Flying Dutchman” strategy as a bigger, faster and more athletic team.  Against A-10 and even OOC competition, speedy closeouts won’t bail out the Spiders.

I won’t rehash the rebounding concerns from the RMC scrimmage (see linked RMC recap above), but St. Francis’s opener against VCU adds to the issue.  The Red Flash ranked second in the Northeast Conference in rebounding a season ago, and they proved they’re still a force on the glass, grabbing 15 OREB to VCU’s 10 on Tuesday.  For reference, VCU was second in the A-10 last year with 34 rebounds per game.

Nathan Cayo will need to step up Friday (and for the whole season) on the glass.  He had just two rebounds in 21 minutes against RMC as a 6’ 7” junior forward.  

“Attack the game.  Be aggressive as possible,” Chris Mooney said of what Cayo needs to do better on Wednesday.  As Cayo was second in FTAs for UR last year, Mooney was alluding to both attacking the basket and the glass.  He scored just two points, shooting 0-2 FG and 2-4 FT against an undersized RMC team.

If Cayo struggles to assert himself as a rebounder Friday, look for Mooney to allocate additional minutes to sophomore Sal Koureissi and freshman Tyler Burton.  In limited minutes as a freshman, Koureissi’s .667 FTr (free throws attempted per field goal) was first on the team, illustrating his ability to post up and drive in the lane.  His 14.3 DRB% was greater than that of Cayo’s 11 DRB%, so at 6’ 9” he could be a helpful reinforcement.

Rebounding was probably the biggest factor in Mooney’s recruitment of 6’ 7” wing Tyler Burton.  In just 11 minutes on Sunday, he was third on the team with five rebounds, three more than Cayo and 6’ 9” sophomore Matt Grace had, and four more than Koureissi.  He also shot 1-2 3FG, which while not prolific, is encouraging for the young player’s first college action, especially when compared to Koureissi’s and Cayo’s struggles stretching the floor.  Look for Burton to find more minutes this year as he learns the offense and gains confidence.

As Mooney said Wednesday, it’s hard to gauge St. Francis based on Tuesday’s contest with VCU when taking into account the 25th ranked Rams’ defensive prowess.  However, their strategy was clear: key in on Red Jacket guards Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon. The pair of seniors shot 34 3FG% and 38 3FG% respectively last season as the first and third leading scorers (2nd leading scorer Jamaal King has now graduated) for the Red Flash.  By targeting the duo, VCU held the two to 31 FG%.  

Despite a lack of size, junior guards Blake Francis and Jacob Gilyard are excellent perimeter defenders (6’ 4” sophomore Andre Gustavson is also an adept defender off of the bench).  The difference, though, is that Richmond doesn’t have a presence such as VCU’s Marcus Santos-Silva to lockdown the interior. Preseason A-10 Second Team selection Grant Golden, as well as Cayo, Koureissi and the rest of UR’s low post players, need to compete defensively in the paint.

This will be junior Nick Sherod’s first game in 348 days following a torn ACL last year.  In 2017-2018, his last full season, he was second on the team in scoring. Although he looked slow defensively Sunday, Sherod shot the ball well and has shed his knee brace, indicating he’s regained significant lateral explosiveness.  

The Spiders are 11-3 in season openers under Chris Mooney, although they suffered an upset to Longwood in last year’s first game.  With major pressure ensuing two straight losing seasons, it’s critical that he opens the season strong against St. Francis and will look to make a statement immediately in the Robins Center.  Tip-off is at 7 pm with the action on ESPN+ and all of ESPN Richmond (99.5/102.7 FM, 950 AM).

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