In Year 5, Mooney has Richmond dreaming of a return to NCAAs
Chris Mooney shocked many by leaving Air Force for Richmond five years ago
Mooney's recruiting has crafted a roster full of talent and experience
Center Dan Geriot's return to health has a huge impact on the Spiders
In September 2007, while discussing his surprising decision two years earlier to leave nouveau chic Air Force after just one season to take over at Atlantic 10 also-ran Richmond, Chris Mooney let slip that he had always considered coaching the Spiders "his dream job."
After hearing that, and confirming that the school had not moved 150 miles or so southwest to either Durham or Chapel Hill, N.C., the immediate follow-up question was, "Why?"
Richmond, despite a solid academic reputation and relative proximity to multiple hoops hotbeds, has been mostly irrelevant nationally since Dick Tarrant's 1990-91 Spiders became the first No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2 in the NCAA tournament. The program's giant-killer reputation forged in the '80s under Tarrant through NCAA tourney wins over Charles Barkley's Auburn squad and defending national champion Indiana quickly gave way to almost two decades in which the Spiders notched only one tournament win in 1998 (albeit as a 14 seed over third-seeded South Carolina), when Richmond was still in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Also, even with the flagship programs in Virginia struggling in recent years, the state is loaded with strong mid-major programs like Old Dominion, VCU and George Mason. Heck, even Hampton and leg-pumping coach Steve Merfeld had 15 seconds of fame since the last time Richmond resonated.
The Spiders' relative anonymity might not last much longer. Now in his fifth season in charge, Mooney's recruiting has crafted a roster full of talent and experience, and Richmond was picked to finish third in the rugged A-10. Off to a 7-2 start (with a South Padre Island sweep of Mississippi State and Missouri, and a win over CAA favorite Old Dominion) that has seen Richmond receive votes in both top 25 polls, Mooney's dream is starting to mesh with reality.
"[At the beginning], you're always hammering home little pieces of the vision," Mooney said. "It all runs together because you're doing it every single day. You're worried about wins and losses, but you're striving toward the big picture, and the big picture means creating this program that you have in your mind and you're trying to change the behavior of anything that conflicts with that vision.
"Now we have four classes of good guys ... and we're more worried about [things like] how our first home stand sets up and what kind of signature wins we can get -- more tangible things instead of the intangible things we've been hammering home for so long. We're able to do that because we have the talent now."
In truth, this breakout season may be a year late. The Spiders had some under-the-radar buzz last fall before center Dan Geriot (pronounced jeh-ROH), who averaged 14.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore, tore up a knee in the preseason and was lost for the year. Without its top low-post option and defensive anchor, Richmond became guard-wacky, leaning heavily on the shooting arms of then-junior David Gonzalvez and sophomore Kevin Anderson, and getting hurt on the glass.
While Richmond did make the postseason CBI for a second straight year, it was the late-season practices with Geriot as glorified scout team member that gave the Spiders a taste of what could be.
"I think we missed Dan's leadership out there on the floor [last season], Gonzalvez said. "The center is such a key part of our offense, we really need the center to be talking and get things moving. Then he was out there in practice dominating and we wanted him back [immediately], but he wasn't ready to go."
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