The Collegian
Sunday, July 05, 2020

Men's basketball team redolent of 1989 squad

The banners in the Robins Center honoring Richmond's NCAA tournament appearances hang evenly, but there's one that carries more significance for the program. Right above the "1988" on that banner is the phrase "Sweet 16," the only banner in the arena highlighting how far the Spiders advanced in the tournament.

On Friday, there will be another banner with that phrase, this one to highlight last year's team. Four starters from last year's team have graduated, leaving many to think that Richmond will have to rebuild before another NCAA tournament banner could be hung in the Robins Center.

That's not the consensus of the team though, and the players have program history on their side.

In 1989, the year following the Spiders first Sweet 16 appearance, there were few expectations for the team after the graduation of three starters: guard Rodney Rice, forward Pete Woolfolk and center Steve Kratzer.

"No one thought after that Sweet 16 year that we were very good," said guard Kenny Atkinson, who started on both the '88 and '89 teams. "Everyone was like, 'Who do they have back? Oh, they lost Rodney Rice and three starters.' I think the pre-season polls were like Richmond's not going to be any good, a rebuilding year."

Like the expectations for this year's Spiders, the 1989 team was picked to finish fifth in its conference.

Those low expectations helped motivate the team, Atkinson said, and Richmond won the Colonial Athletic Association with a 12-1 record. Its only conference loss would come to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Throughout the year, Atkinson said that he had been motivated by doubt coming from outsiders. He said that he could remember playing against other teams and having players come up to him to try to devalue Richmond's 1988 team.

"I remember playing against some guys who were trash talking, saying it was luck," Atkinson said. "It was more like it was a fluke, more than respect. ... We just wanted to confirm that we were really good."

Headed into the CAA tournament at the Richmond Coliseum, Richmond had won five games in a row after the loss to Wilmington. In the quarterfinals of the tournament, the Spiders defeated the Naval Academy, 96-86, to set up a rematch with UNC-Wilmington. The teams had split the season series, with Richmond winning at the Robins Center in the first meeting.

The third meeting was a close game, but the Seahawks escaped with a three-point win to prevent the Spiders from getting the CAA's automatic berth to the 64-team NCAA tournament.

"We had one bad game that knocked us out of contention for the NCAAs which was, how do I describe it, shocking, depressing, every word imaginable," Atkinson said. "I just remember being in a state of shock, sitting in my hotel room after that game because I felt we were almost a shoe-in."

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That left Richmond in the National Invitation Tournament for the first time since 1985.

"It was a good team, but we didn't make the nationals, we didn't make the NCAAs," said Dick Tarrant, who coached at Richmond from 1981-1992. "We were happy for the NIT, we were happy for anything."

In the NIT, Richmond got matched up with a familiar opponent, Temple University. The two schools were in different leagues back then (Richmond did not join the Atlantic 10 Conference until 2001) but they had a history. It was the Owls, the No. 1 seed in the East bracket that year, that trounced the Spiders in the 1988 Sweet 16 in East Rutherford, N.J.

The NIT game was played at a sold-out Robins Center and was televised on ESPN. The Owls had lost two of its low-post players to the NBA after 1988, but were still a good team, Tarrant said.

"They [returned] three really good, solid guys who played against us in the Meadowlands," he said. "But we had them here and we played one of our better games I coached against Temple here."

Some revenge was extracted as the Spiders won, 70-56. The disappointment that Atkinson had from missing the NCAA tournament was changed to an excitement after defeating Temple.

"It was like a disaster situation of getting nothing in the NCAAs, but it turned out pretty cool beating Temple and beating them in the first round," he said.

The second round of the NIT was played once again at the Robins Center. If Richmond was to beat the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it would advance to play Jim Calhoun's University of Connecticut.

But that game never materialized as the Blazers came in to the sold-out Robins Center and defeated the Spiders, 64-61.

"I'll never forget," Atkinson said, "They hit a three-pointer from like 30 feet, way beyond normal three-point [depth]." And I remember, it was my coverage in a zone and the guy drilled it in my face. We didn't play well that game. I didn't have a good game."

That week's edition of The Collegian reported that Richmond struggled with UAB's man-to-man defense and made only two out of its nine three-pointers that game. But it was the Blazers' forwards and centers that presented the biggest problems for the Spiders.

"Their guys were so big; they could just beat on us inside," Richmond forward Joe Jon Bryant said, according to The Collegian. "I think I lost half my lip."

Tarrant coached the Spiders for three more years, and led them to the NCAA tournament in 1990 and to the second round of the tournament in 1991.

Tarrant said that he had not given current Richmond coach Chris Mooney any advice on how to handle this season.

"I never speak to Chris Mooney about my inner thoughts," Tarrant said at a press conference Wednesday, sitting next to Mooney. "I never wanted unsolicited advice and nor does Mooney."

Atkinson played one more year for the Spiders, reaching the NCAA tournament again in 1990. He is now an assistant coach with the New York Knicks and said he thought that this year's team could match or improve what the 1989 team did.

"I would not count them out because I remember watching the NCAAs [last year], watching the guys come off the bench and was like, 'These guys are pretty good players,'" Atkinson said. "So I think, I would not be surprised if they surprised people. I really don't."

With Richmond's history, it's hard to say he's wrong.

Contact staff writer Andrew Prezioso at andrew.prezioso@richmond.edu

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