5:58 PM EDT, March 23, 2011
Last season was a landmark for the University of Richmond's basketball program. The Spiders matched the school record for wins, cracked the national polls for the first time in a generation and earned their highest NCAA tournament seed.
Two hours in Providence tarnished it all as upstart St. Mary's of California defeated Richmond in the tournament's first round.
With the core of that squad returning, the Spiders vowed 2011 would be different.
But this different?
Richmond won the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament for the first time — the Spiders joined the league in 2001 — and defeated Vanderbilt and Morehead State in the NCAA tournament to reach the Sweet 16 for the second time.
Their reward: a Southwest Regional semifinal Friday versus top-seeded Kansas in San Antonio.
"(Last year) we were just happy with being in the tournament because things here hadn't been good," center Dan Geriot said Wednesday.
A fifth-year senior, Geriot endured the depths. Richmond went 8-22 in his first season, Chris Mooney's second as coach.
Last year's success — 26-9 record, first national ranking in 24 years and No. 7 NCAA seed — was virtually intoxicating.
"I think we came in a little overconfident," guard Kevin Smith said of last year's tournament.
"I think we panicked a little bit when (St. Mary's) got a lead," Geriot said. "We had a great year, but we had a bad taste in our mouths from that tournament game."
With four senior starters, there is little or no panic in this bunch.
The Spiders (29-7) are 7-2 in their last nine games against ranked opponents, including the 69-66 victory over Vanderbilt. Their nine-game winning streak is the program's longest since 1991.
In fact, considering its major-conference talent at point guard and power forward with Kevin Anderson and Justin Harper, most were surprised at Richmond's No. 12 seed.
Mooney was among them, but unlike many of his colleagues, refreshingly declined to cry disrespect.
"I think there's far too much made of teams feeling disrespected and worrying about what media members say about them as they're critiquing their seed or whether they should be in the tournament or out," he said.
"This is a tremendous accomplishment for the University of Richmond, our students and fans and alumni. And so I think to concern ourselves too much with what we perceive as disrespect would just trivialize the accomplishment. This is great — it doesn't matter what number is in front of your name, and it especially doesn't matter when you're going to play Kansas, because you can be pretty sure what number is next to their name."
Mooney, 38, came to Richmond after one season as Air Force's head coach. He played at Princeton for Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril and runs the offense that carries his alma mater's name.
"I think it has a lot more to do with our players than our style," Mooney said of Richmond's success. "We always feel we have an advantage if teams are more worried about our style than Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson and Dan Geriot."
Similarly wedded to old-fashioned fundamentals, Dick Tarrant guided Richmond to its first Sweet 16 in 1988 with upsets of Indiana and Georgia Tech. Under Tarrant, the Spiders also bested Auburn and Syracuse in NCAA tournaments, and in 1998, thanks to five 3-pointers by Kecoughtan High graduate Marseilles Brown, John Beilein-coached Richmond defeated South Carolina in the NCAA.
Add Vanderbilt last week, and you have six tournament conquests of top-five seeds. All when the Spiders were seeded 12th or lower.
"In the past, we've been known as giant killers," Harper said. "We really just want to be recognized as a great team."
Outside of the NCAA tournament, Richmond's signature victory came in its only encounter with Kansas. The Spiders defeated the No. 10 Jayhawks 69-68 in 2004 on Tony Dobbins' fadeaway with one second left, ending Kansas' 52-game home winning streak against unranked opponents.
Naturally, Mooney unearthed that game tape and showed it to his team.
"First of all, Kansas hardly loses," Mooney said, "and any kind of footage you can get of them losing is rare. … With players they recognize on the floor, who are their friends or they know, for them to have been a part of beating Kansas, we just thought it would be important for them to see that this can happen, this is college basketball.
"We all know what happens in the course of a season, especially in March."
No one knows like Richmond.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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