The sun set here in Richmond at 4:56 pm, which means winter’s coming and Spider basketball is fully underway. Three games in, we now have a small sample size to break down, analyze and pick apart (until January hits and everything I’m writing is completely wrong, but hey, we’ll get there when we get there). With that in mind, I want to explore four topics I think fans should follow as the season goes on.
To say the offense has been spectacular thus far is an absolute understatement. Richmond’s 94.3 ppg is SIXTH in the nation as the team is yet to dip below 90 points in a game. The distanced three-point line doesn’t seem to have hurt the Spiders so far, who are shooting 42.5 3FG%. Nick Sherod’s stroke looks as good as it’s ever been, shooting 52.6 3FG% on 9.3 attempts per game. His seven three pointers against Cal State-Northridge (on nine attempts) are tied for the 2nd most in a game in program history. Even though CSUN is #238 in the country according to KenPom, Sherod’s lack of hesitation, range and clear trust in his knee all look improved from a rough shooting outing against Vanderbilt (2-7 3FG). Both his 22 points per game and 28.9 player efficiency rating are second only to Richmond’s superstar point guard.
Jacob Gilyard has been one of the elite point guards in college basketball to start his junior year. With the return of Sherod and addition of transfer Blake Francis, the former Northeast Conference three-point leader, some wondered if ball distribution could lead to a slight dip in his numbers, with possibly increased efficiency. His numbers certainly aren’t taking a hit, as all three guys have had no problem sharing the rock. Gilyard is scoring a team-high 22.7 points per game while dishing 6.3 assists on a whopping 30.7 AST%. As Sherod is, he’s hitting threes efficiently (52.6%) and at a high rate (6.3 3FGA). In fact, he has been the eighth most efficient player in all of college basketball with a 38.4 PER, has a top-15 true shooting percentage (80.8%) and is 9th in offensive box plus/minus (13.7). The addition of floor spacing this year with Sherod and Francis has done much more to open up space for Gilyard than it has to take shots away from him, and the effect is probably even greater now with a deeper three point line spreading out defenders. Responding to its effect, “There’s a lot more lanes to be drove into,” Gilyard said. “It frees up a lot for our offense. I think that the line getting pushed back definitely helps us out.”
For as good as Richmond is behind the three point line, they’ve been every bit as effective from the charity stripe. A season ago, the Spiders’ 66.1 FT% was 321st in the nation. Grant Golden and Nathan Cayo were the team leaders in FTA, 5 and 4.7 per game respectively, as interior players, but only converted at a 65.7 FT% and 57.7 FT%. This year, Cayo has shot 9-10 FT and Golden is 6-8. Obviously this is a small sample size, but for Cayo this could project more accurately as readjusting his shot release was a point of emphasis over the summer.
In a 69-66 home loss to VCU last spring, Richmond was 8-19 from the line. Against a defensive juggernaut like the Rams, free throws are the best way to score when field goals are hard to come by. If the Spiders can sustain close to their current 78.6 FT% (6th in the nation), it could be the difference maker in close games.
The first 3-0 start since 2012, two overtime wins and one blowout have made for an electric start to the season. At the same time, the Spiders trailed by 10 points with under five minutes at home to St. Francis (PA) in a game they were 11.5 point favorites (eventually winning by one point in OT) and then nearly lost again to a Vanderbilt team projected to finish last in the SEC. A couple bad bounces and this Richmond team could easily be 1-2.
The switch to mainly man-to-man defense hasn’t provided much of a boost in the early goings for a team that focused “60% to 70%” of its offseason on defense. Mooney’s squad is giving up 84 points per game (338th in the country) and allowing opponents to shoot 42% from deep (340th).
Perimeter defense is an interesting topic for the Spiders. Gilyard is 3rd in the country with 4.3 steals per game and is extremely effective in producing transition points off of them. His 104.9 defensive rating is the best on the team so it doesn’t appear that he’s the problem.
Speaking of defensive rating, Gilyard, Golden and freshman Tyler Burton are the only players with a sub-110 DRtg. For as magnificent as Sherod has been offensively, he is continuously beat off the dribble, posting a -5.9 DPM (2nd worst). Blake Francis hasn’t been terrible, but he and Andre Gustavson, who Mooney uses as a defensive substitute at 6’ 4,” have struggled with high-ball screens, often under cutting and leaving shooters open, or going over and getting caught with pump fakes on their recovery. Francis has a team-worst -6.1 defensive box plus/minus.
Other than Sal Koureissi’s 0.8 DPM, Burton’s 4.0 is the only positive DPM for Richmond. His length at 6’ 7” and surprising strength makes him a major presence on both the interior glass and at the rim, while his exceptional athleticism gives him the ability to cover wings. He also blocks 4.1 shots per 40 minutes, a team high. As a freshman, there are certainly moments when he loses assignments, but both his offensive and defensive IQs will improve with experience and can often be covered up when sharing the court with upperclassmen.
Clearly the starting five need to tighten up, but it’s hard to gauge what adjustments need to be made rotationally with such a small sample size. A lot weighs on how quickly Burton comes along, Gustavson’s progress and whether Koureissi can defend more cleanly (8.3 fouls per 40). Unless one of them makes major strides in those areas, it’ll be hard to steal minutes from any of prolific scorers in the starting five.
Mooney’s bench is consistently going nine or 10 deep this year, a vast improvement from a season ago, when Noah Yates and Julius Johnson were the only consistent contributors (with sparing minutes from Grace and Koureissi). Gustavson, Wojcik, Koureissi and Grace all have a full year of experience now, and Burton already looks like a double-digit minutes guy, so this is encouraging just a year after Gilyard averaged 37 minutes per game.
Going down bench by minutes played, I’ll start with Andre Gustavson, who plays 19 per game. The Helsinki Basketball Academy product started 19 games last year, taking the job from Julius Johnson after Sherod’s torn ACL. He’s the most athletic guard this team has and is Mooney’s go-to substitution on defense. He flashes quickness and strength, showing adept ability to get to the rim, but his lack of confidence and hesitancy, especially last year, is what really held him back. Although he could certainly improve his outside shooting, the Spiders have enough offense and perimeter play for him to just focus on defending and attacking the rim.
Next up is sophomore Jake Wojcik, playing 14.7 minutes after starting all 33 games last year. Shooting 36 3FG% as a freshman (2nd most attempts), he was the main catch and shoot guard. With the addition of Francis and return of Sherod, it was obvious that Wojcik’s role would decrease to some degree. It’s been surprising, however, how poorly he has shot the ball in his first three games (25 3FG%) while scoring only 2.3 points a night. I wouldn’t expect that to last, and even if he doesn’t match 36%, the catch and shoot is still his bread and butter so it will certainly improve.
Tyler Burton is probably the most college-ready freshman Chris Mooney has had a few years. Not only has been a plus on defense, but Burton is the best rebounder Richmond has. He is averaging 9.4 rebounds per 40 and has the highest OReb% of Spiders getting 10+ minutes. His 5.2 box plus/minus is second only to Gilyard, and it’s double that of the next closest player (Sherod at 2.5 BPM). The raw tools are already there for Burton to succeed, so watch for his production on both sides of the ball to increase as he learns the game and garners more minutes.
Sal Koureissi was Richmond’s highest ranked recruit last year, yet he played less minutes than his three fellow freshman. The 6’ 9” forward from Iona Prep has great length but his poor outside shooting, slow feet and narrow build made him more of a long-term project. This year, he’s looked much stronger, slightly quicker and much more assertive on the boardsm, and he is fourth on the team with a 141 ORtg. If he can stay out of foul trouble (8.3 fouls per 40) and expand his game to the perimeter, he’ll be looking at 10-15 minutes per night.
Last up is Matt Grace. Although he’s been a solid rebounder and actually leads the team with a 19.5 OReb%, Grace’s poor defense and almost absent offensive production have caused him to fall below Koureissi on the depth chart. He is committing 10.5 fouls per 40 and hasn’t scored in 19 minutes, failing to convert second chance points. If Koureissi stays on the same trajectory and with Burton’s minutes likely trending upward, Grace’s role could become even more limited as Mooney locks down his rotation.
Rebounding was the glaring hole for this team entering the year after finishing bottom-five in the country in 2018-2019. For as great of a scorer and passer Golden is, he isn’t the most athletic 6’ 10” big man and doesn’t have a fantastic second jump; Gilyard and Francis are both under six feet (unless you ask Blake) and Nathan Cayo was underwhelming on the glass a season ago, despite breaking out as a post-scorer.
This team doesn’t need an Arnoldo Toro to dominate the offensive glass; they already have the potential to be the highest scoring group in the conference. What Richmond does need to do is secure defensive rebounds. They were outrebounded by D-3 Randolph-Macon in a scrimmage and gave up 15 offensive rebounds to St. Francis (PA), which turned into 26 second chance points.
Cayo exploded against Vanderbilt for six offensive rebounds (hopefully motivated by myself), however, he’s only grabbing 2.5 DRB (I’m not including his stats from CSUN considering he played less than 20 minutes in the blowout). He has loads of athleticism, and if he can channel it into rebounding it would vastly raise Richmond’s ceiling.
Burton and Koureissi both need to be playing at least 15 minutes a night for the Spiders, especially as the level of competition and physicality increases. I won’t rehash the points from above, but there is so much scoring to go around that they can plug into the lineup as pure defensive and rebounding specialists, with added offensive production as a bonus. Matt Grace doesn’t seem ready yet and has a 50 TOV%, but those two guys have been a spark in limited minutes so far. It’s also important to note that despite a shooting slump, Wojcik has been an excellent rebounding guard so far, grabbing 5.5 per 40.
A home matchup with McNeese State could shape up to be another cruise-control victory for Richmond, taking them to their first 4-0 start since 1985. It’s a great opportunity for Chris Mooney to experiment defensively and get a feel for his rotation more ahead of their game against Wisconsin Monday in the Roman Legends Classic. This squad could have a historic season on offense, and they’re going to be even better next year after adding transfer Connor Crabtree and incoming freshman Isaiah Wilson. They have a great chance to finish top-5, maybe even fourth in the A-10 but need to fix glaring weaknesses defensively and rebounding the ball.