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Can Richmond win the regular season title?

Heading into this season I highly doubt many of us would have put their chips on the Richmond Spiders for being the first Atlantic 10 team to seven wins (yes, they have played one more conference game than both VCU and Dayton, so that comes with an asterisk, but still). I doubt anyone would’ve placed that same bet on UofR after a 6-6 non-conference start, yet the Spiders currently pace the league with a 7-2 A-10 start and based off both recent history and a future that includes a favorable schedule, have to love their chances for at least a top-four finish with a crucial bye in Pittsburgh, if not a regular season league championship (we’ll get to that later).

It’s been just two years since the A-10 went to an 18-game schedule, but here’s what recent history tells us: only one Atlantic 10 team started 7-2 or better and failed to finish in the top four of the regular season standings.

That team was Spider rival, the 2015 VCU Rams. VCU started with a league-best 8-1 record but lost star point guard Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury in that first loss, no doubt a contributing factor to their 4-5 league finish for a 12-6 record. That record tied Richmond’s 12-6 mark for at least the fourth best record, but thanks to tie-breakers dropped the Rams into the No.5 seed in that year’s tournament. Oddly enough the Rams would go on to win it, but were also ranked 38th nationally by Pomery heading into that tournament, the second highest ranked A-10 team at that point in the season.

That’s the first bit of good news for Richmond. Basically all 7-2 teams in this 18-game schedule have finished either in the top-4 or won the tournament. Small sample, yes, but if you’re out there on the hardwood you’ll take every good omen you can get. If you go back to the 16-game schedule, the last team to start as hot as Richmond only to drop out of the top-four was the 2012 La Salle Explorers that after a tied-for-league-best 6-2 start, eventually fell to fifth in the final A-10 standings at 9-7, a game back of two 10-6 squads.

Here’s the second bit of good news: Richmond has a very favorable remaining schedule.

Of the Spiders back nine, only three games are against top-100 teams. Two of those games are at home and all three are in the city of Richmond. Richmond will play crosstown rival VCU twice, then hosts Davidson, a team they defeated on the road to open A-10 play.

That isn’t to say their road will be free of traps and slip-ups. The Spiders aren’t a top-100 (kenpom) team themselves — currently ranked 108 — so assuming wins over fellow sub-100s could prove to be a fool’s errand, especially considering the Spiders’ occasional head-scratching struggles against Oral Roberts, UMBC and VMI.

Richmond will face a tough La Salle team that in many ways resembles the Spiders, only bigger, then heads to EagleBank Arena for a rematch against a George Mason team that owns one win over the Spiders already. A late season road tilt at UMass is also no gimme, as the Minutemen are currently the predicted favorite in that one (76-74) and own a home win over Dayton already, proving anything is certainly possible when the Spiders come to town.

Kenpom, our spirit animal around these parts, predicts a 12-6 finish for Chris Mooney and Co., which would place the navy and red one game inside the top-4 for a tied record with Rhode Island, a team Richmond beat convincingly this past Wednesday, giving Richmond a head-to-head tie-breaker they would need for a third place finish.

But do I think they can win the regular season title? No.

And that’s not a knock on the Spiders. Chris Mooney has done a tremendous job with a thin roster this season that has gone about six players deep, maybe seven, and has needed big minutes from two local freshmen recruits. But with a Tuesday win at Fordham, the Dayton Flyers would join Richmond at 7-2 with a pretty winnable schedule themselves and the head-to-head win they would need to top the Spiders in a tie-breaking scenario. The Flyers are an experienced team with a top-10 nationally ranked defense and I think your favorite to once again claim the top seed in the A-10 tournament. They are ranked 36th nationally by kenpom to Richmond’s sub-100 national current location.

But we are having that discussion and that’ll likely do for a Spider fanbase that has been screaming for Mooney’s replacement as late as Dec 23, 2016.

KENPOM PREDICTED TOP-4
Dayton 14-4
VCU 13-5
Richmond 12-6
Rhode Island 12-6

HOW THINGS COULD GO BAD

Remember the Briante Weber injury that helped tank the remainder of VCU’s regular season injury? Well that Rams team ranked 32 nationally in bench minutes, meaning they played one of the deepest benches in the country. This year’s Richmond group is just the opposite, checking in at 338th nationally out of 351 teams (second worst in the A-10, St. Bonaventure being the worst…in case you were interested). ANY injury could have a huge effect on this year’s group and a key injury could be brutal. That is the extreme example, but one bad night of foul trouble could have a similar effect. Richmond senior forward T.J. Cline is arguably the frontrunner for this year’s Player of the Year award at this point in the season, but quick fouls in one night of action could equal a banana peel loss for UofR somewhere on their remaining schedule. Cline has played 83.3% of available minutes for this year’s Spiders team in conference play and has been the fourth most used player in conference since A-10 play tipped it up. His last sub-30-minute performance came all the way back on Nov 30, a four-foul, 23-minute performance in a loss at Bucknell and that was with Grant Golden available as a backup. The Spiders’ lack of depth simply leaves no room for error and a healthy Cline and Jones duo is a must these next two months of action.