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The Spiders return to action Wednesday night with a matchup against the preseason Missouri Valley Conference favorite-Northern Iowa Panthers. Richmond, fresh off of a COVID pause, survived a major scare Monday in its home opener against Wofford, defeating the Terriers 77-72 behind a monster game from Jacob Gilyard.
The Spiders played 60 minutes of ball hawking, aggressive defense after giving up 40 points to Morehead State in the first half of the season opener. Gilyard and 6-foot senior guard Blake Francis refused to leave passing lanes open against Kentucky’s young back court, preventing a single Wildcat assist in the second half. Monday afternoon was a different story.
The Terriers jacked their first six shots of the game from deep and started 0-11 from the field. While that allowed Richmond to open an 11-0 run, quick jump shots early in the shot clock by Wofford made it difficult for Richmond to generate early turnovers and get out on the fast break. After all, the Spiders are at their best when turning defense into offense, behind Gilyard leading the charge.
He had two crucial steals down the stretch to secure the victory, but Richmond’s defensive effort in the second half was far from the consistent, physical one seen against Kentucky and in the second half against the Eagles. Just as a wonky offseason is attributable to their defensive miscommunications in the beginning of the Morehead State game, it is reasonable to think the COVID pause could explain some of the confusion in Monday’s contest.
“We just need to have more of a typical week. To have two practices, three practices, our shoot around and play. We just need to keep playing,” Head Coach Chris Mooney said after the game.
A return to routine could line up Mooney’s squad for a solid bounce back on Wednesday, particularly if the defensive consistency returns. Northern Iowa began the season with three straight losses in the Bad Boy Mowers Classic in South Dakota. Senior guard AJ Green averaged 22 points over the opening multi-team event on 41 3P% but started experiencing hip pain in his second game. He missed their home opener against St. Ambrose on Friday and will not play Wednesday as they explore both surgical and pain-management options.
The loss is huge for the Panthers, an elite perimeter shooting team. They are 23rd in the country with a 42.9 3P% on 29.8 attempts (25th-most). After Storm Murphy destroyed Richmond with 21 points (4-10 3FG), Green could have been lined up to burn the Spiders in the pick and roll game. The junior averaged 19.7 points in his sophomore season and was eyeing an MVC Player of the Year nod in this campaign.
Do not expect a cakewalk for Francis and Gilyard, however. UNI got senior guard Trae Berhow back on Friday after missing the first three for COVID reasons. He was second on his team in scoring last year with 12.5 and shot 44.6 3P% on 5.1 attempts. Freshman guard Bowen Born is also shooting 38 3P% on roughly 7 attempts and sophomore forward Noah Carter has hit half of his looks from deep through four games on five attempts per conteste. The sample size is small for both, with Born playing just four collegiate games and Carter seeing limited minutes as a freshman last year, so be wary of over reacting the eye popping percentages. Much of what the Panthers do on offense runs through Green, so even with Berhow back, some of the supporting cast’s production will likely drop as they rework how to facilitate the offense.
On the defensive side of the floor, Northern Iowa is poised for a tough night in the paint. Richmond has outscored all of its opponents in that area, and UNI’s 25.8 defensive rebounds per game does not even crack the top-150, per Kenpom. Watch for Nathan Cayo and Grant Golden to see heavy usage in the post. The Panthers do not have a true center, and 6’ 9” forward Austin Phyfe is the largest player on the roster. Phyfe is a non-threat defensively, posting a meager 102 DRtg through four games and leading his team with 3.5 fouls per game. The Spiders need to attack him early and often.
This bodes well for junior Matt Grace, who continues to show resemblance to Golden in more ways than hair style. He showed an even better ability than Golden to stretch the floor last year and had a formidable bag of post moves, but the criticism was his lack of toughness on the glass and defensive end. To Grace’s credit, he has looked immensely stronger this year. His 13.4 DRB% is second only to Tyler Burton, 93.9 DRtg short of only Gilyard and Burton (among players with 20+ total minutes of action) and 2.4 blocks per 100 possessions is second best for the Spiders. There is no reason he should not continue to hold down the low block on Wednesday and give Golden plenty of rest.
Richmond must fight harder to switch and communicate defending the pick and roll, and even without Green, Northern Iowa’s sharpshooters could make them pay. However, if much of the Wofford woes were caused by the COVID pause, there is no reason the Spiders do not have a field day on both sides of the ball Wednesday night. They will look to improve to a 4-0 start for the first time since 1954-1955 in Chris Mooney’s 500th career game with Richmond. Tip off is at 6 pm, and you can catch the game right here on ESPN 99.5 FM.