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Monday, October 18, 2021

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OPINION: Chris Mooney, a legacy of mediocrity

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

As the clock counted down to zero, the University of Richmond Spiders were a battered team. A season filled with high hopes ended with a 67-62 second-round Atlantic 10 tournament loss to Duquesne University on March 4. 

The Spiders held a six-point lead in the second half, but then could not make a field goal for nine minutes. And the team only made three field goals in the final 13 minutes, allowing the Dukes to win the game.

During the game, graduate student forward Grant Golden battled through a hand injury that required him to wear a partial cast. Graduate student guard Blake Francis did not play at all, having suffered a hip injury while playing against Saint Joseph's on March 1. This limited the Spiders’ scoring options, which had already been dampened because of a preseason injury that sidelined graduate student guard Nick Sherod, the team’s most dependable three-point shooter. 

These losses were too much for the Spiders to overcome on March 4, but why? When a team faces adversity and is short-handed, it is the job of the head coach to lift the squad up, allowing the team to outperform its potential. Coach Chris Mooney should be replaced because of this year’s disappointing results, a lack of postseason success and an inability to develop talent.

The potential for the men’s basketball team this season was immense, making its ending so disappointing. 

The team secured the school’s first road win versus an Associated Press top-10 team in program history and its highest ranking since the 1957-58 season when it beat the University of Kentucky, then ranked No. 10 in the country, on November 29. The NCAA tournament is out of reach for both teams, and the win ultimately represents a mirage of the season that should have been. 

Two weeks after beating Kentucky, the Spiders visited another AP-ranked team, the West Virginia University Mountaineers, currently an AP top-10 team. The Mountaineers dominated the Spiders en route to a 16-point win, in a game that was over by halftime. 

The Spiders’ only win against a currently ranked team this year, Loyola University Chicago, featured a 19-point lead with 9:11 left in the second half -- that had been cut to a two-point lead when the clock hit zeroes. 

The team also struggled with COVID-19 protocols and needed to pause program activities on three separate occasions. The three pauses cost Richmond seven games, five of which were in A-10 play that the team needed for A-10 seeding and NCAA tournament consideration. It should be on the coaching staff and the head coach to keep not only themselves but also their players safe and available during such a difficult time. 

Mooney holds a 287-230 record at UR, but it is important to keep in mind that UR consistently schedules weak non-conference competition and still loses some of these games, such as this year’s home loss to Hofstra, a fourth placed team in the weak Colonial Athletic Association. 

Virginia Commonwealth University, UR’s crosstown rival and longtime conference peer, has been a 16-year problem for Mooney, who is now 7-20, including 0-3 in the postseason, against the Rams.

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In the past 14 years, VCU has had 11 NCAA tournament appearances, including an upcoming one this month. The team also had a Cinderella run in the NCAA tournament when it went to the Final Four in 2012, led by former coach Shaka Smart. The Rams also had four other NCAA tournament wins during this stretch, whereas Mooney is 2-2 in the tournament for his career and has not been back in 10 years.

Before Mooney, UR and VCU had the same number of NCAA appearances: seven. Now, VCU has 17, and the Spiders have only nine. VCU, despite joining the A-10 11 years later than UR, has been to six championship games in eight years (not including 2020); UR has been to two championships, winning only one in 16 years, and has only been past the quarterfinals in the A-10 Tournament three times.

The administration's blind support for Mooney despite a lack of postseason success is worrisome since this in itself is enough to strongly consider making a change.

Not including this shortened season, Mooney has only lost fewer than 10 games three times but has finished .500 or below six times. His best postseason finishes in the past 10 seasons consist of two quarterfinals runs in the National Invitational Tournament, a tournament college basketball is mostly apathetic towards. These results, along with two seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19 where Mooney finished a combined 15 games under .500, put immense pressure on his job security. 

Notoriously, a set of alumni and Spider fans set up a billboard on I-95 during the 2018-19 season that called for Mooney's firing. The “Fire Mooney Mafia” drew a response from local newspaper columnists defending Mooney, while Mooney himself said that he “[hadn't] given it too much thought.” The group has gone quiet now. Its Twitter account is suspended and its Facebook account has not posted in more than two years.

The primary reason Mooney received a two-year extension and calls subsided for his firing was because of the 2019-20 season. The Spiders earned a 24-7 record and headed into the A-10 tournament as the No. 2 seed. The Spiders were firmly on the bubble for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, though they were far from guaranteed a spot. In order to win the conference last season and get an automatic bid, Mooney most likely would have had to earn his best win of his career against the No. 3 team in the country, the University of Dayton.

This season was supposed to build off of last year’s success. UR was the favorite to win the A-10, was viewed as being one of the best mid-major teams in the country and had four returning starters who are now 1,000-point scorers. These expectations were based on the premise that the team would develop, and yet, that surely was not the case.

The team was unable to develop and improve their games throughout the season. 

Golden, Francis and Gilyard all finished this season below their 2019-20 averages in points per game. Gilyard and Francis shot a lower percentage from three while Golden averaged fewer rebounds. Senior forward Nathan Cayo showed a lot of development in his low-post game, but surprisingly, his averages are similar to what they were in 2018-19. 

Junior forwards and role players, Matt Grace, Souleymane Koureissi and Andre Gustavson failed to develop much in their junior year. They averaged a combined 8.8 points per game, up 2.1 points from their collective mark in 2019-20. 

This should be worrying for Spiders fans, because these players will most likely be a part of the starting lineup heading into next season, as the fate of the five seniors is up in the air

One player that should be the centerpiece of the squad next season — assuming he does not transfer — is sophomore forward Tyler Burton. All of his offensive averages were up from last year, and he was able to step up in place of Sherod. First-year guard and three-star recruit Isaiah Wilson also showed some promise in limited playing time. 

The inability to develop players will almost assuredly lead to worse on-court performance, as the team will have a smaller and weaker core. In turn, this hurts UR’s ability to recruit better players, leading to another cycle of mediocrity. 

If Mooney is unable to get the best out of his players and win with four healthy 1,000-point scorers, why should UR keep its faith in him?

The way this season ended matters. Another early tournament exit cannot be ignored and taken as business as usual. UR should have higher expectations in a sport it has underachieved in for far too long. Former coach Dick Tarrant’s tenure was supposed to be the launching pad, not the peak. 

I will leave you with this question. Should UR be remembered in a similar vein as the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, reminiscing about the success of yesteryear, or become the next mid-major school to grow into being one of the big guys themselves?

Contact contributor James Bastone james.bastone@richmond.edu.

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