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The 2020-2021 college basketball season has been uncharted territory for most programs, but Chris Mooney and company have a familiar foe come Wednesday. The 4-1 Spiders head to Nashville for the final game of a home and home series with Jerry Stackhouse’s Vanderbilt Commodores (2-0).
Richmond is fresh off of an 87-71 loss Sunday at #11 West Virginia, shooting the Mountaineers to #8 in Monday’s AP Top 25 poll and dropping the Spiders out entirely (leading all unranked teams with 140 votes). Lack of consistency on both ends of the floor has been a concern for them since giving up 40 points to Morehead State in the first half of the season opener, and a five-point win over Wofford on December 7th after trailing by five with less than three minutes to play indicates Sunday was not an outlier.
There is a silver lining for Richmond, however. Sophomore wing Tyler Burton had the breakout week many have been predicting since he dropped 26 points and 15 rebounds over two games against George Mason and La Salle respectively last January. The 6’ 7” Uxbridge, Massachusetts product showcased the footwork, confidence and jumpshot that, next to his other-worldly athleticism, make him Richmond’s top professional prospect. Burton dropped 47 points and 30 rebounds in a three game stretch last week, including two double-doubles, earning his first Atlantic-10 Player of the Week selection. Richmond returning four of five starters carries a facade of similarity to last season, but Stackhouse will have to scout this team much differently from the one that played Burton just six minutes in last year’s early season contest. Burton brings a physicality, toughness and rebounding ability the Robins Center has not seen in some years.
The Commodores will also flash new looks from that November 2019 Spider victory. Aaron Nesmith, who scored 34 points (7-12 3FG) in that game, was taken by the Boston Celtics with the 14th overall pick in the NBA draft. Saben Lee, trailing Nesmith with 24 points and eight assists in that one, left school a year early as a second round pick by the Detroit Pistons. Those two accounted for more than 40 points nightly for Jerry Stackhouse in 2019-2020, and with just two games under his squad’s belt this year because of COVID-19, it remains to be seen where that scoring will be made up.
Could Scotty Pippen Jr be that answer? Jacob Gilyard gave the sophomore headaches in their last matchup (4 points, 3 assists, 3 turnovers), but the 6’ 0” guard improved as the season progressed. He finished averaging 12 points, 3.6 assists on 36.2 3FG% as a freshman, but did commit 2.7 turnovers. Was a 25-point season opener (14-14 FT) against Valparaiso this year a signal of a year-2 jump, or was it a product of a sloppy 20-foul Crusader performance?
Sophomore forward Dylan Disu is vying to take over the reigns as well. He started 31 games as a freshman and dropped 11 points on Richmond. At 6’ 9”, Disu can stretch the floor. He took more than six 3FGAs per game in SEC play and Stackhouse is again giving him the green light this year.
“Coach Stack and the coaching staff told me I was passive shooting the ball because I only shot three 3s that game,” Disu said of the season opener. “So they told me to be aggressive.” He scored a game-high 17 against Mississippi Valley State (0-7) on 5-5 3FG and also snagged a leading 12 rebounds.
The COVID bug disrupted four of Richmond’s games this season (Detroit Mercy, Charleston, Furman, Duquesne), but Chris Mooney has still secured five strong non-conference games thus far.
Vanderbilt has not been quite as fortunate.
After Valparaiso, it missed four games because of COVID-19 issues and was without Notre Dame transfer DJ Harvey, senior Clevon Brown, sophomore Jordan Wright and freshman Myles Stute last Sunday. Stackhouse indicated his team will not be at full strength again on Wednesday, saying “We feel good about the (COVID-19) protocols, but I’m overly cautious. I want to give those guys a little extra time and make sure they’re fully healthy. It was a long break, so we’ve got to worry about conditioning.” Stackhouse added, “My focus is on the long haul, not right now in this game or the next game or the game after that. It’s about the season.”
Vanderbilt features seven new players this season. With just two games under its belt and likely again short of a complete cast, trying to predict roles and styles can only be so accurate.
However, the Spiders’ goals are relatively concrete. In a game KenPom gives them a 69% win percentage, this is a chance to show they can put their foot on the gas for a full 40 minutes. Blake Francis’s jump shot has been incredibly streaky through five games. He scored 18 against Kentucky but shot 1-10 from beyond the arc against West Virginia. Grant Golden committed six turnovers in a 9-point and 8-rebound effort. Even Burton’s team-high 14 points came on 5-15 from the field. Any of those guys, as well as senior Nathan Cayo, could go for 20 points or a double-double on any night, but there is only one true constant in this lineup.
Jacob Gilyard is the best player on the #26 team in the country. He shot 36 3P% and led the nation in steals as a junior, and this season is averaging 11.2 points, 6.8 assists and 4.2 steals. He was at the center of the national spotlight with a signature five-steal outing against the Wildcats, overshadowing his subpar shooting with elite defense. Gilyard can control a game such as that without scoring when his four fellow starters all score in double-digits, but what happens during games, such as last Sunday, when their shots do not fall?
Gilyard shot 3-6 from the field in the first half against the Mountaineers, which looked brilliant next to his teammates’ abysmal numbers. Down big coming out of the locker room, he took just one shot in the final 20 minutes. ONE SHOT!
The 5’ 9” wizard does not need to change his player profile in his fourth year and become an electric scorer. However, he needs to take more than seven field goal attempts against a top-15 opponent. With Francis hitting his 7+ 3FGAs per game at a 29% clip, Gilyard needs to be ready at any moment to get his shots up, and a younger Vanderbilt team will provide that opportunity Wednesday.
The midweek matchup will come two days before the Spiders head to Indianapolis on Friday to take on the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers. That game came together because a positive COVID-19 test within Duquesne’s program made a Saturday contest unlikely. Two consistent efforts this week may be enough to usher Richmond back into the top-25 on Monday, so expect a focused, motivated veteran group to rebound after last weekend. Tip off Wednesday is at 1 pm, with coverage right here on ESPN 99.5 FM.