The Collegian
Tuesday, December 01, 2020

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Spider basketball seniors look to continue building in final season

<p>Sophomore forward Nathan Cayo runs past the VCU defense at the Siegel Center on Wednesday, Feb. 13.</p>

Sophomore forward Nathan Cayo runs past the VCU defense at the Siegel Center on Wednesday, Feb. 13.

The University of Richmond Men’s Basketball team returns a whopping four starters from last season.

Not many teams in college basketball have the luxury of bringing back four starters from the previous season — let alone a lineup with so much experience. Seniors Jacob Gilyard and Nathan Cayo, redshirt senior Blake Francis and graduate student Grant Golden all returned to UR this fall for their final seasons of eligibility. The group led the team to 24 victories last season — one win shy of its total from the previous two seasons combined.

The fifth member of that starting lineup was current redshirt senior Nick Sherod, who shot 43.8 percent from three-point range. Head coach Chris Mooney announced last month that Sherod will miss the entire 2020-21 season with a torn ACL.

"Our entire program is heartbroken for Nick. He has been the most consistently excellent student-athlete in our Spider family and an outstanding player, teammate and leader during his career,” Mooney said. “Nick is a captain of our team and we know he will remain one of our leaders through this challenging time."

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for a team that anticipated bringing back their entire starting lineup from a season ago. Even without Sherod, the Spiders will field an experienced starting five bolstered by a dynamic senior class.

Each member brings a unique skillset to the floor, coming together to form a well-rounded starting unit, Golden said. 

“The good thing about us is we have someone everywhere at all levels,” Golden said.

Last season, the team’s harmony on the court helped them win nine of their last 10 games heading into the quarterfinals of the Atlantic-10 tournament in March.

Then it was over. As the rest of the world started to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the A-10 canceled the rest of the tournament. Hours later, the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships including men's basketball, effectively ending postseason play. The news was a brutal blow to a team that had dreams of an NCAA tournament berth.

“It was tough because we were all together at the same time when we heard the news,” Francis said. “We all knew how close we were to getting an opportunity to make it to the NCAA Tournament. That’s in the past now and we have to focus on what’s in front of us.”

Gilyard put it bluntly: “It was devastating.”

The sour ending of last season did not spoil a dramatic improvement for the program. The 2017-18 season saw the team muster up a mere 12 wins. In 2018-19 the team could only do one win better with Sherod missing most of the season due to his first torn ACL and Francis required to sit every game on the sidelines after transferring in from Wagner College due to NCAA transfer guidelines. 

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Gilyard, Golden, Sherod, and Cayo were all on the roster during those down seasons. Golden praised the resilience of that group of players. 

“It’s hard after you only win 12 games in a season then come back the next one and one of your best guys gets injured and you win 13,” he said. “We could’ve all just easily given up, gone our separate ways, transferred to wherever we might’ve gone, but we didn’t and stuck it out, and we had the best season in school history last year.”

Cayo thinks the losses suffered during his first year and sophomore seasons have prepared the team for this moment, he said. 

“Our first three years were really tough,” he said. “It really helped us because going through the ups and the downs, we know how it is to be a really bad team, and we know how it is to be a really good team. We don’t take any team lightly, and we’re grateful for the opportunity we have to be a great team right now.”

The winning turnaround of last season has put the spotlight on three of the team’s biggest contributors. In April, Gilyard, Golden and Francis declared for the NBA draft while maintaining their NCAA eligibility. After experiencing a limited pre-draft process, they announced in June their return to UR.

“The process was slow due to coronavirus,” Francis said. “You can’t really get a real pre-draft experience because of what happened. I took the best out of it and got some feedback, which was helpful to me.”

Gilyard said he had anticipated that he, Golden and Francis would wait to join the NBA for another year.

“We all planned on coming back, no matter what,” he said.

The return of four out of five starters has brought more attention and higher expectations to the team. In August, ESPN ranked UR in its early top 30 teams for the 2020-21 season. An A-10 championship is a reasonable goal considering the team’s 24 wins last season and with national player of the year Obi Toppin, formerly of Dayton, gone for the NBA. An NCAA tournament appearance is well within range. 

We have a chance to make a run, so the opportunity to have high expectations and to meet those expectations and to play in March is fueling us going into the season” Sherod said.

The players understand there are higher goals set for themselves this time around and they are embracing them.

“I personally think it’s exciting,” Golden said. “I like having the spotlight on us and everybody gunning for us. Obviously, it’s a different position than we’ve been in in the last couple years, but I think it’ll be fun.”

The team is ready to work hard to meet expectations. 

“We can’t let the buzz around us make us feel good about ourselves,” Francis said. “We still have to go out there and actually do it, so that’s our main focus as a team. We have to stay focused on what we can control and let the outside people give us buzz.”

In a college basketball landscape where experience is money, UR is filthy rich. Gilyard knows the significance of the maturity his team brings to the court, he said.

“To have five veterans—I think we’re the oldest starting lineup in the country—is exciting,” he said. “We all have played a lot of college basketball, and I think the most important thing in college basketball is experience, so it’s going to help us down the road.”

Gilyard, who led the NCAA in steals per game last season, is already UR’s career steals leader with 275. With 109 more this season, he could become the NCAA Division I all-time steals leader. 

Golden, who currently sits at 15th on the UR all-time scoring list with 1,472 points, could surpass 2,000 and move into the top four scorers in school history if he matches his career high of 567 points in a season. Despite the opportunity to make individual history, it is the progress of the program as a whole that drives these five seniors.

“I’m most proud of the fact that the program is in a better spot than when we first got here,” Sherod said. “I want the young guys to be able to look at the work we did as seniors and build off of that.”

“The most impressive thing we’ve done, aside from all the accolades and the records, is showing that we were able to sacrifice who we are to be a better teammate and to become a better team,” Gilyard said. “Grant wants to be top 10 in scoring and I want to get the NCAA record in steals, but with the shortened schedule that might be a little tougher. At the end of the day, we both want to make the tournament more than anything.”

As they plan for their final season together, the players look back fondly on what they have been able to achieve so far.

“I’ll be proud of what we have accomplished,” Cayo said. “It’s been a testament to our hard work so far, sticking through the ups and downs, and I want when we’re all done to go down as one of the best teams in program history. It’ll be something we can be proud of.”

Contact sports writer Gedd Constable at gedd.constable@richmond.edu.

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