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The mid-season A-10 opus: Can Richmond upset the apple cart?

The Spiders get top billing, but VCU and Dayton still loom large.

NCAA Basketball: Duquesne at Richmond Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

T.J. Cline had the first triple-double in Richmond history last Saturday against Duquesne.

You can’t say he didn’t warn us.

Cline wrote the following in the Player’s Tribune in November:

Thanks to all the work last summer, I feel like I finally have all the tools to help lead Richmond to the NCAA Tournament. When my teammates and I are just chilling in the dorms, playing FIFA, Madden or NBA 2K, all we talk about is going to the Dance this March. Honestly, I get chills every time I think about it. Because, although no one’s really picking us to make noise this year, I know this group of dudes can do it.

So, is the NCAA Tournament within Richmond’s reach?

The Spiders’ 5-0 league start was cooled by back-to-back losses to Dayton and George Mason, but they’ve refused to fade. Richmond won its past two games, including an important, grinding victory over Rhode Island last week, and is back in the A-10 lead at 7-2.

An at-large is not likely on the table, even with two cracks at VCU left on the schedule. It’ll be A-10 tournament or bust, and Richmond is what it is at this point. Despite good defensive metrics, the Spiders have had to out-gun opponents with an offense that moves the ball well and has posted the best effective field goal percentage (55.0%) in A-10 play.

ShawnDre’ Jones has been great (16.9 PPG), and a deep guard rotation has developed, with Khwan Fore, Julius Johnson, De’Monte Buckingham and Nick Sherod all having their moments.

But the team and its high-ceiling offense leans most heavily on Cline.

It’s not hard to find examples of this. It was Cline’s seven assists that propelled the Spiders to a big lead in an important early win at GW. It was Cline nearly posting a triple-double (15 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists) carrying Richmond to a sluggish win at St. Joe’s.

And then he notched the triple-double (34 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) in the Duquesne game that featured little defense. After the game, Chris Mooney noted how impressed he was that Cline didn’t commit a foul the entire game.

That itself may be the key to Richmond’s chances at winning an A-10 title.

Winning three games in Pittsburgh won’t be easy for a team that relies on a finely-tuned offense that lacks a true post player or presence on the glass. But it gets a lot more likely with Cline on the floor directing traffic. He’s done a good job of avoiding foul trouble this season, though that may in part be due to some “strategic” defense.

High usage A-10 forwards

Player Team %Min Fouls per 40 Mins
Player Team %Min Fouls per 40 Mins
Peyton Aldridge Davidson 89.30% 2.1
T.J. Cline Richmond 79.40% 3
Tyler Cavanaugh GW 77.70% 3.5
Christian Sengfelder Fordham 76.00% 2.9
Isiaha Mike Duquesne 70.30% 3.8
Reggie Agbeko SLU 67.10% 5
Mo-Alie Cox VCU 62.0%` 4.2

There is a sensible reason Mo-Alie Cox has been more foul-prone: he’s a physical defender whose role is to protect the paint. And that’s a perfect transition to VCU.

VCU stands out in the crowd

The Rams, who are definitely not an upstart, had a vintage performance in last Friday night’s showcase against Dayton.

No, they didn’t force a bevy of turnovers in a fast-paced game, but they were tough and relentless. After some sloppy early defense, VCU battered the Flyers down low, out-rebounding them by 17 and scoring 46 points in the paint.

In a league with no shortage of stretch four’s, VCU’s physical front court stands out.

Cox (and his physique) get the most attention, but Justin Tillman (18 points, 9 rebounds against the Flyers) is the league’s best rebounder, and senior Ahmed Hamdy has averaged 10.5 points and 8.0 rebounds over the past four games.

The Rams have the best offensive rebounding percentage in league play (38.5%), and host Richmond Wednesday in a game that will severely test the Spiders’ style and lack of post presence.

VCU has shown it’s capable of bad stretches, such as disappointing losses at Fordham and at home to maybe-not-that-bad Georgia Tech. But lately the Rams have stabilized a big weakness: turnovers. Despite a bad night against Fordham, they’ve taken good care of the ball over the past six games.

JeQuan Lewis is an A-10 POY candidate and Samir Doughty has emerged as a versatile complement on the wing. VCU made a statement against Dayton, and seems like it will be comfortably on the right side of the bubble and remains a favorite to win both league titles.

Forgetting about Dayton would be a mistake

Let’s not overreact to last Friday’s result and overlook Dayton.

The Flyers have an elite defense stacked with quality perimeter defenders, that has frustrated dynamic guards like ShawnDre Jones, Jordan Price, E.C. Matthews and Emmett Naar. Only twice in league play has Dayton allowed its opponent to score more than one point per possession.

And they’ve also been resilient.

On the macro-level, Dayton won difficult league games against St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island without an injured Charles Cooke. On the micro-level, even in losses they’ve been tough. The Flyers rallied out of a massive early hole against Northwestern to give themselves a chance late, and made a mini-run in the final minute to make VCU’s final inbound set matter.

The A-10 is packed with good guards, but none may be more important to his team than Scoochie Smith. The Flyers offense can struggle - as it did at VCU - without its tough, experienced senior point guard on the floor (14.3 PPG, 27.3% ARate in A-10 play).

As good as the Flyers have been, the ultimate ceiling may still be out there. Cooke, Kendall Pollard, Kyle Davis, Darrell Davis and Josh Cunningham have missed time at various points this year. All but Cunningham - who may return this season - are now back.

Dayton remains the league co-favorite, with the return game against VCU looming on March 1.

Best of the rest

The following teams winning the conference tournament would be a surprise, but only mildly:

  • Rhode Island: There will be a time to unpack whether this season has been a disappointment. For one, E.C. Matthews has not been as dynamic as expected, but is still having a great year, especially for a guy returning from major knee surgery (15.4 PPG, 35.1 3P%). URI has yet again dealt with injuries/illnesses, with Jarvis Garrett being the most recent unfortunate victim. Yet the Rams are balanced and talented, most recently holding SBU to its lowest points per possession (0.86) production of the season. With that impressive Cincinnati win in-hand and a game a piece remaining against Dayton and VCU, an at-large is not completely off the table.
  • St. Bonaventure: SBU’s offensive output is down across the board after a blistering non-con run. The general feeling is that the Bonnies can’t defend a lick, but here’s the reality: they’ve only lost to Dayton, Richmond (without Jaylen Adams) and URI during league play. Granted, SBU wasn’t exactly competitive in any of those games, but there’s reason for optimism. No team will want to see Adams and Matt Mobley on the other side of the court in a win-or-go home setting.
  • La Salle: The Explorers were cruising through A-10 play with a torrid offense at 5-1. Then VCU bludgeoned them and sent La Salle on a three-game losing streak. But Pookie Powell missed the last two close losses against Penn and St. Joe’s, putting a slight asterisk next to a disappointing stretch. The Explorers don’t play Dayton or VCU again, suggesting that Jordan Price, B.J. Johnson and a dangerous offense could gather plenty of steam prior to the conference tournament.

Highly Debatable All-League First Team

What opus would be complete without a list like this? There’s a cop-out: other than Marquise Moore and T.J. Cline, it’s too hard to narrow down. Here are the contenders:

  • Jack Gibbs
  • Marquise Moore
  • Jaylen Adams
  • Matt Mobley
  • Scoochie Smith
  • JeQuan Lewis
  • E.C. Matthews
  • Tyler Cavanaugh
  • T.J. Cline