By Noah Goldberg
The Spiders will welcome the #7 Dayton Flyers on Saturday, the highest-ranked opponent to come to the Robins Center since #7 George Washington in 2006. Former VCU head coach Anthony Grant brings with him the best shooting team in the nation (52.5 FG% ranks 1st), largely thanks to redshirt sophomore Obi Toppin, who was recently one of 25 players named to the Wooden Award midseason watch list.
Richmond is riding a three-game winning streak since losing leading scorer Blake Francis to a fractured sternum (will miss 4-6 weeks). Even with two of those victories coming on the road, the Spiders haven’t been tested lately, aside from a late mini-run by Davidson.
Two convincing, double-digit wins against La Salle and George Mason certainly built momentum going into Richmond’s toughest matchup, but as Jacob Gilyard told media on Friday, they haven’t been playing their best basketball.
“We’ve won our last three, but I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball in these last three, so that’s kind of our thought process right now. We’re just trying to reset and play this game,” Gilyard said.
Speaking of resetting, it’s crucial the Spiders are able to do so within the game. Toppin leads the nation in dunks, and the Flyers’ high-octane offense is bound to go on runs. Richmond must acknowledge those moments beforehand and remained composed, as Gilyard also noted.
With all the national attention Toppin has garnered as a potential NBA lottery draft pick, it’s important not to neglect the rest of one of the most talented starting fives in the country.
Junior Jalen Crutcher leads Dayton’s sensational back court with 14.2 points (16.8 in conference), 5.1 assists and converts the deep ball at a 41% clip. In their first true test through conference play, the Flyers trailed St. Louis by one on the road with just seconds remaining. Crutcher drove up court, used a Toppin screen to find some space and drilled a three-pointer with 0.1 on the clock.
Four Flyers score in double-figures (Ryan Mikesell is just short at 9.9), one of them being Michigan-transfer Ibi Watson, who comes off the bench. Watson shoots a ridiculous 46.8 3FG% on more than 4 attempts and posts a 128.4 ORTG, greater than both Toppin and Crutcher.
Even when mid-major teams have featured All-American level players, it’s often the case that higher-level defenses hone in on the one star, as seen with Ja Morant and Murray State. Grant’s confidence in players like Crutcher to take the most important shot in a game is what makes Dayton so unique and consequently opens more things up for Toppin.
Richmond’s improved defense hasn’t faced an offense as versatile as the Flyers all season. Not only do they lead the nation in 2P%, but a 37 3FG% ranks 34th in the country.
With as much as they lose offensively in Francis’s absence, the Spiders do gain size defensively by inserting Andre Gustavson into starting lineup. Even so, it’s impossible to stop such a multilateral and explosive Dayton attack. The key for the Spiders is to win the matchups and battles that they can effectively target.
“They’re balanced offensively. Everybody can score the ball. Obviously they shoot the ball well, so we’re going to have to give up something and hope it works out for us,” Gilyard said Friday.
Obi Toppin’s captivated the nation with highlight real dunks and absurd athleticism, a deep contrast to a Richmond team not known for its bounce. Freshman Tyler Burton has had something to say about that lately.
Not only did Burton tear down the roof of the Robins Center with that slam on Wednesday, but he’s posted career highs in points and rebounds in consecutive outings (12 points and 6 rebounds against George Mason and 14 points and 9 rebounds against La Salle). Burton’s improving confidence is unleashing an ability to score off the dribble that could be lethal down the road when combined with his strength on the glass at 6’ 7”.
His pairing of size, skill and strength, along with playing his best basketball of the year lately, could be a valuable defensive asset against Toppin. As a freshman, he must maintain composure in what will be the most electric environment he’s ever played in.
Richmond has the chance to improve to 6-1 in the Atlantic-10 for the second time in school history and could grab its first win against an AP top-25 team since downing #14 California in 2015. A victory would propel the Spiders to 1st in the conference.
Tip is at 6 p.m. in the Robins Center on Saturday. Catch the action right here on 99.5 FM & 950 AM ESPN, with coverage beginning at 5:30.