The University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University launched their men's basketball rivalry on Jan. 29, 1976.
The Richmond Spiders won that first game, but now the VCU Rams lead in the series by a 51-30 margin. However, as the Rams lost to the Spiders twice last season, VCU's second-year head coach, Mike Rhoades, is 0-2 against his Richmond head coach counterpart, Chris Mooney.
Rhoades' next opportunity to notch his first win against the Spiders will play out on the Rams' Siegel Center floor on Wed., Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. Since both schools are members of the Atlantic 10 Conference, a glance at their respective won/loss records in the league's standings shows why the Rams should be seen as the favorite to win this time around: VCU is 17-6 overall, 8-2 in the A-10 while Richmond is 10-14, 4-7 in conference.
In striving to defeat the Rams this time, Mooney's team won't be able to apply much of last season's successful game plans. For the 2017/18 season, when it came to defense, VCU was a mediocre squad. This season, on defense, the Rams are arguably the best of the A-10's 14 teams.
Last year Coach Mooney knew Coach Rhoades' offense flowed through one player, his A-10 first-team all-star forward Justin Tillman. Now Tillman is playing for the Memphis Hustle in the NBA's G League and this year's VCU offense is spread out in a way that no one player's scoring is essential for the Rams to win.
This year none of the Rams are averaging as many as 30 minutes of playing time per game. On offense, three juniors are averaging in double-figures, scoring-wise; they are Marcus Evans, De'Riante Jenkins and Issac Vann. The team's best rebounder, sophomore Marcus Santos-Silva, is probably the most improved player over the season. Another daunting factor for Rams' opponents to deal with is that Rhoades can be expected to use six or seven guys off his bench.
Because of the way Rhoades spreads out the playing time, the swarming aspect of his defense has been getting more intense over the season. VCU's traps and double-teams have been coming more often, seemingly anywhere on the court.
Due to the frequency of the coach's substitutions, early in the season the Rams appeared to suffer on offense at times. Maybe it undermined their chemistry. Now the players have grown accustomed to the pattern and their roles within the scheme. Consequently, with fresher legs the Rams are finishing games better and Rams fans have surely enjoyed watching the steady improvement of the team. The spells in which VCU has seemed disheveled have been getting shorter.
For an updated game plan, Mooney has to be looking at the Rams' pair of Achilles' heels. Hey, Rhoades readily admits that turnovers have probably cost his team a few games. The turnover problem is more noticeable when they have faced teams with quick, pesky guards. Truth be told, VCU is not particularly good at shooting the ball; that's especially true when it comes to three-point shot accuracy. The Rams routinely want to run at a stupefying fast pace. It usually works to their advantage, but not always.
So, Wednesday night, if VCU's outside shooting is cold and the Rams start turning the ball over – trying to cram it inside against a tight defense – Richmond's chance for pulling off another upset may get sweeter as the minutes tick off the clock.
Which brings us back to the crosstown rivalry aspect of this tilt. It isn't just another game on the schedule. These two universities' campuses are just six miles apart. The players know one another. In a Capital City Classic matchup, when it gets down to one minute to play, pregame expectations don't necessarily matter.
Here's a look at last season's crosstown rivalry game at VCU (from Spider TV highlights):
It’s been a tough year for Spider fans, as this team has had to suffer an unusually high number of setbacks. These include the offseason loss of Khwan Fore, their hard defending leader who is now a graduate transfer starting at Louisville; as well as the dismissal of De’monte Buckingham, once the team’s toughest and most exciting player, who is now sitting out a year at CSU Baskersfield in California. This season, a torn ACL has sidelined their best shooter, Nick Sherod, who was averaging 17.6 points a game before the injury. That the Spiders have had a mediocre year with some bad early losses should probably be expected.
This is a very young Spiders team, which starts three sophomores and two freshmen. When they manage to move the ball, hit threes and defend, they can still beat good teams in the A-10. Also, more than any year in recent memory, Coach Mooney is experimenting with different defenses, which has proven helpful.
The Spiders are led by 5-foot-9 sophomore point guard, Jacob Gilyard, who is number two in Division I basketball in steals, and exhibits a rare combination of quickness and real full-court speed. Also redshirt sophomore Grant Golden, who at 6-foot-10 provides their anchor in the paint (when he can get the ball closer to the basket, Spiders thrive).
They’ve also relied on the quick first step and slashing of 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Nathan Cayo, who upped his point production this year, though he remains a sketchy outside jump shooter. Senior guard Julius Johnson just came back from a minor injury, going three for three from beyond the arc in his return. When his energy is high, crashing boards and making threes, it’s big for this team, which is lacking bench depth, especially when compared to VCU.
Luckily for Mooney, the first-year players are learning: Freshman guard Andre Gustavson seems mature beyond his years and, instinctively, he looks like he understands basketball – though he doesn't seem fully confident yet in his outside shot and is still developing his lateral quickness. The other freshman, guard Jake Wojcik, is a solid set shooter from 3-point range, but sometimes has trouble getting open looks. Both make the normal freshman mistakes.
To win this game, the Spiders must be active on the defensive end, forcing turnovers led by Gilyard, rebound well as a team and make a good percentage of their 3-point shots. They'll also need solid minutes from bench players like Matt Grace and Souleymane Koureissi. It won’t be easy, but then again, these two teams always get up for playing each other in one of the nation’s best college basketball crosstown rivalries.
The Spiders are coming off one of the best shooting performances in 14 seasons in their 26-point win over George Washington: They shot 62.3 percent for the game.
Tip-off for the Lumber Liquidators Capital City Classic at VCU’s Seigel Center is set for 7 p.m. and the game will air on ESPN2 or ESPNU.