One year ago today, the A-10 Tournament kicked off with its infamous Wednesday Night Pillow Fight (the games are in the afternoon this year but you get the sentiment). For the fans of 10 teams in the conference, it is a day of relaxation, preparation and probably a lot of drinking as they watch whichever three unfortunate teams join Fordham’s annual tradition. In 2019, the 20-loss Spiders were one of those groups. What a difference one year makes.
Richmond tied its record 14 Atlantic-10 wins when it defeated Duquesne Friday night, a 73-62 road victory. It secured a top-two seed in the conference tournament for the first time since joining the A-10, finishing only behind Final-Four favorite #3 Dayton. Expectations were high this season, and the Spiders exceeded them, however there’s still work to be done.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi still has Richmond in his First Four Out, while other bracketologists have the Spiders in the field for the NCAA Tournament. A win on Friday in the quarter finals against Davidson or La Salle keeps dancing dreams alive, pending how other bubble teams perform. An appearance in the championship on Sunday will likely secure an at-large bid.
The path to that Sunday game could not be more favorable for the conference runners-up. The Spiders went undefeated in the regular season against their entire side of the bracket, which features Rhode Island, Davidson, La Salle, Duquesne, George Washington and Fordham. Interestingly, the Colonials and Rams (of New York) put up some of the biggest fights, including a three-point and six-point loss respectively.
Chris Mooney has had his team playing some of its best basketball down the stretch of the season, building momentum toward Brooklyn. The Spiders lost just one game since February 1st, a four-point defeat at St. Bonaventure, and held opponents to 60 points per game. The most efficient defense in the A-10 is not the only piece of this unit that is clicking.
Redshirt junior Nick Sherod has been the X-Factor as their primary sharpshooter. Not only did he shoot a scorching 46.6 3FG% in A-10 play, but his on and off switch had a direct correlation to his team’s success. In Richmond’s losses this season, Sherod went 12/39 (30.7%) from downtown, and in wins, he was 69-139 (47.5%).
Sherod struggled with inconsistency on the road through conference play, but hitting his stride on the last four should provide a huge confidence boost for this weekend. He went 13-21 3FG over the final four contests, including 6-12 outside of the Robins Center.
The versatility of the Spiders’ five-headed monster is what makes them so hard to defend. Sherod’s role in spacing the floor has largely helped open up the low post for Grant Golden and Nathan Cayo. He will need to show up in a big way this weekend.
With as much change as this team has seen since last year’s A-10 Tournament, two pillars of consistency remain. Jacob Gilyard and Grant Golden have been sensational both of late and throughout A-10 play.
Gilyard’s scoring has dipped since Blake Francis returned from a broken sternum, but the A-10 Defensive Player of the Year has been a jack of all trades. He leads the nation with 3.2 steals per game, and the 5’ 9” point guard swiped six takeaways in the season finale at Duquesne, adding 10 assists as well. He averaged just 8 points over the four-game win streak, so if he starts finding the bottom of the net at higher volume, this offense becomes even more dangerous.
After an inconsistent beginning to non-conference play, Golden made a reasonable case for Richmond’s most important player over the final 18. His 32 AST% leads the Spiders, and the big man flirted with a triple double at Duquesne, posting 13 points, eight assists and seven rebounds on just one turnover.
A playmaker on offense, his defensive strides this season have been monumental. He improved his in-conference defensive rating by over 15 points from his sophomore season, largely thanks to a deeper bench providing more rest. Golden played just 26 minutes per game this season, down from 31 last year. He will be as fresh as ever, which is crucial heading into postseason play, where coaches often shorten their rotations.
March may be one of the most joyous times of the years in sports, particularly in college basketball, but the term “Madness” has taken on a new meaning in 2020.
The spread of COVID-19 is shaking up conference tournaments across the nation. Several will be carrying on without fans in attendance, and the Ivy League even canceled the entire tournament, declaring Yale, the regular season champion, the NCAA Tournament representative. The Golden State Warriors just announced that their home games will be played without fans for the foreseeable future as well.
The Atlantic-10 has removed media access from locker rooms at the tournament and banned teams from doing post-game handshakes. Fans were allowed into the Barclays Center for Wednesday’s games, though the evolving situation could change at any time.
The University of Richmond has not yet followed suit with UVA in sending students home and moving to online classes, however many expect that to be a possibility over the final days of spring break.
Regardless of the coronavirus situation, the Spiders have their sights set on an A-10 Championship, and the journey there starts on Friday night at 6 p.
Update 4:40 p.m. EST: Minutes after posting this, the NCAA announced the men’s and women’s tournaments will be played without fans. The Atlantic-10 is yet to take any action regarding fan attendance.