Entering the Atlantic 10 tournament this season, the Richmond Spiders were a middle of the pack team that finished sixth in the competitive conference. They were led by a few talented graduate returnees who had very successful careers but could never quite crack into the NCAA Tournament.
“We had six super seniors… four were really good players who [are] all over 1,000 points so it was really a unique situation with that bonus COVID year,” Richmond coach Chris Mooney said. “The guys who came back were great. They just wanted to be involved at Richmond and back as part of the program.”
For reference, this group included Jacob Gilyard, the NCAA all-time leader in steals and the program leader in assists, who managed over 2,000 career points. He is one of two Spiders to eclipse the 2,000-point and 1,000-rebound marks, along with Grant Golden.
Also several key role players, such as Nathan Cayo and Nick Sherod, were both members of that 1,000-point club, and junior forward Tyler Burton was a Second Team All-A-10 selection and is now testing out the NBA Draft waters.
In spite of all this veteran talent, the Spiders were still regarded as underdogs in the A-10 Tournament. They had fallen short in years past and struggled to compete with teams such as Davidson, led by A-10 Player of the Year Luka Brajkovic, or Dayton featuring A-10 Rookie of the Year DaRon Holmes II.
While nobody really gave them a shot, the Spiders took down No. 11 Rhode Island, third-seeded VCU and No. 2 Dayton before beating out regular-season champ Davidson 64-62 in the Championship to earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2011. From here, Richmond claimed a 12-seed in the Midwest Region and upset fifth-seeded Iowa in the Round of 64 with a final score of 67-63.
“It’s really special what we were able to accomplish led by those guys because they put so much time and effort into this program,” Mooney said. “They could have gone to essentially any school across the country, so for them to want to be here [and] want to do it together, that really is incredible and so rare.”
After a loss at the hands of Providence in the Round of 32 ended the Spiders’ season, it was time for all four graduate starters to move on from Richmond. Golden and Gilyard both declared for the NBA Draft. Cayo signed a professional deal in Canada.
Heading into the offseason with a roster that looked somewhat empty and unsure, Mooney and his staff’s prime concern was to ensure the return of veteran seniors Andre Gustavson and Matt Grace. If both Gustavson and Grace opted to use their additional year of eligibility for another season at the Robins Center, Mooney claimed he would be comfortable exploring the recruiting circuit with a core group already in place.
“[Andre and Matt] were our top two recruits by far,” Mooney said. “To be able to have guys who’ve been here and done extremely well, who are great guys, teammates, and students, that was our priority. Once those older guys decided to return, I think then we felt like we could move forward and really surround them with some good pieces.”
With Gustavson and Grace secured by mid-April, Mooney took the opportunity as a result of Richmond’s recent success to rebuild with some exciting recruits through the transfer portal and out of high school.
Neal Quinn, a 2021-22 Second-Team All-Patriot League selection, was the first to commit to the Spiders. The 7-footer averaged 14.7 PPG with 7.4 RPG last season for Lafayette. He is a player Mooney sees fulfilling a similar role to Golden as he develops.
“We really feature our center in the offense, throwing him the ball and allowing him to make decisions as we move around him,” Mooney said. “Obviously Grant was tremendous in that part of the game. I think Neal has similar characteristics, his passing, his presence, he’s confident with the ball in the low post and on the perimeter… [Quinn] will do it a little differently I’m sure, but the idea that we’re playing through him will remain the same.”
Quinn was followed by former Wofford standout Isaiah Bigelow, a 6-foot-7-inch guard who averaged 8.3 PPG and 5.5 RPG in 31 appearances for the Terriers in 2022.
“Bigelow is a very good player from a great program,” Mooney said. “He’s got a rare combination of athleticism and 3-point shooting that’s impressive with good size, is a good athlete and a great kid, so I think that he can really have an impact as well.”
The trio was rounded out with the addition of 2021-22 Southern Conference Rookie of the Year Jason Roche, who joins the Spiders after one season with The Citadel. He averaged 13.2 PPG and four RPG, ranking ninth nationally in total 3-pointers made. Roche ultimately picked Richmond over multiple Power-5 programs, including Missouri, Pittsburgh, Kansas State, A-10 rival St. Bonaventure and San Diego.
The only current incoming freshman for Richmond is 6-foot-11-inch Michael Walz, a Berwyn, Penn., native who chose the Spiders despite major interest from local programs, such as St. Joseph’s and Penn State. Walz averaging nearly a double-double in his junior year of high school with 9.5 PPG and 10 RPG, and Mooney sees him as a developmental piece that already possesses a lot of good qualities.
“[Walz] really has a chance to improve during the course of his time in college,” Mooney said. “He’s already very good. He’s a strong, physical player, also a very good passer, and I think he’ll be a good 3-point shooter as well as somebody who can score in the low post.”
While next season’s roster will look different from this season’s NCAA Tournament participant, Mooney believes Richmond will still be characterized by veteran leadership and competitiveness.
“As much as we had an incredible amount of experience last year, we’ll still have very good experience this year,” Mooney said. “Our skill level should be high as it usually is, but the level of competitiveness also can match that which is often one of the most important pieces to having a good team.”