Las Arañas are Lurking in South
NEW ORLEANS -- Trivia question that might be easy, if you speak Spanish:
Which NCAA tournament team wore this jersey on its tour of Spain before last season?
Answer: Las Arañas translates to "the Spiders." As in, the South Region's seventh-seeded Richmond Spiders, whose coach, Chris Mooney, didn't want his team to do what most teams do on foreign tours: wear practice jerseys. He went for a custom design instead. And because the 37-year-old former Princeton player is a big fan of European soccer clubs, he thought, "What we should do is have European club-style uniforms -- that would be the best ever. I wanted to have even more patches on that thing."
Mooney keeps the jersey framed in his Richmond office; just below it, on a table, are two potted plants he received on the first day of practice in '09-10. One is from Georgetown coach John Thompson III, the other is from Northwestern's Bill Carmody, both of whom were Princeton assistants under Pete Carril when Mooney was a player. The card on Carmody's plant says, "Keep Make Shots," a variation on Carmody's "Make Shots" slogan that must have been grammatically bungled at the florist.
Mooney is a disciple of those two coaches, and the youngest member of the Princeton family with his own Division I gig. But he has already customized his own version of his alma mater's famed offense that doesn't resemble what's run at Georgetown or Northwestern. "Speed is something we really value, and our biggest emphasis is on being fluid and moving the ball," Mooney says. "That's just from a personal taste standpoint. Coach Carmody is one of the brightest minds in the game, and he invented a lot of this stuff, but he likes to put in a lot of wrinkles and plays. For us, I'd be hesitant to put in a new play over the course of the four-month season."
That's because Mooney wants one of the college game's most underrated backcourts to be able to create. Richmond, essentially, runs Princeton with penetration. Six-foot junior Kevin Anderson (17.8 ppg), the Atlantic 10 player of the year, and 6-4 senior David Gonzalvez (14.5 ppg) are a pair of versatile scorers and defenders who've led the Spiders to the highest NCAA tournament seed in program history, and could be trouble for 10th-seeded St. Mary's and second-seeded Villanova this weekend. Anderson, a demon off the dribble, does most of his scoring in the paint despite his diminutive size. "He has such an uncanny ability for shot-making," Mooney says, "that if he misses a 12-foot runner in traffic, with two big guys on him, I'll be like, 'What happened?'"
While the team the Spiders might meet in the second round, Villanova, has multiple McDonald's All-Americans in its backcourt, Mooney built his dynamite duo with some visionary recruiting. When Anderson played on the AAU circuit, he was an anonymous backup guard on the Worldwide Renegades, an Atlanta-area team that featured J.J. Hickson (now with the Cleveland Cavaliers) and Chris Allen (now with Michigan State). "I really wasn't even a point guard," Anderson says of those days. "I was just handing Chris or J.J. the ball and letting them take over games."
Anderson was so passive that his mother, Shirley Brown, worried that he was damaging his Division I potential.
"She offered me bribes to start playing differently," Anderson says.
"Cash," he says. "To take more shots and be aggressive."
Richmond didn't even offer him a scholarship in the fall of his senior year, but Anderson did enough little things at a tournament in Vegas to inspire Mooney to follow up at a Peachtree Ridge high school game that winter. Anderson was easier to appreciate in a high-school setting where he had command of a full game at the point. Soon after Anderson started his freshman season at Richmond, Mooney told his old teammate Sidney Johnson, now the Princeton head coach, "I think we have a great player."
Within three years time, Anderson helped orchestrate a total turnaround of the Richmond program. The Spiders were 8-22 (4-12 in the A-10) the season before he arrived, but went 26-8 (13-3) this season. And his parter in the backcourt, Gonzalvez, came from even further off the radar: His plan, during his senior year at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga., had been to play Division II hoops at South Carolina-Spartanburg (which is now South Carolina Upstate).
But Gonzalvez started to have a nagging feeling that he shouldn't settle for D-II: "Towards the end of my senior season, we were on our way to a state championship, and we were killing a bunch of guys who were going to D-I," he said, "and I felt like I could play there too." The problem was that D-I coaches hadn't found their way to Wheeler to see him.
His mother stepped up and looked into prep schools where he could do a post-grad year and get exposure. Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass., told Gonzalvez he could come there, but he wasn't likely to get many minutes, given that big-time D-I prospects like Syracuse-bound Paul Harris, Louisville-bound Derrick Caracter and Marquette-bound Lazar Hayward were already on their roster. What Gonzalvez did was force his way on the floor by defending: "We had so many superstars, but what we needed there was a guy who would lock up their other team's best scorer," he says. "I played full-court, 94-foot D. That was my role, and they barely ever took me out."
Gonzalvez had a team-high 64 steals this season, and was named to the A-10 All-Defensive squad. He, Anderson (59 steals) and senior swingman Ryan Butler (56 steals) comprise a menacing trio at the top of Richmond's matchup zone, which is the other key to the program's rise: The Spiders rank 34th in the nation in defensive efficiency -- a 121-spot jump from 2008-09.
When Mooney took his first head-coaching job, at Landsdale Catholic High School as a 22-year-old, he also taught English, and he'll occasionally teach his current Spiders team a new vocabulary word. Last season, after a loss to Virginia Tech in which the Hokies had a field day on the offensive glass, the word he wrote on the locker-room markerboard was "Euphemism."
Euphemisms, Mooney said to his players, are what coaches use when they speak to the media.
"He told us that with other programs, when coaches say their team chemistry is lacking, that just means the kids don't like each other," says junior center Dan Geriot. "And then he said, what they say about Richmond is that they're 'skillful,' and they have 'good fundamentals.' What that really means is that you guys are soft, can't rebound, and can't win a game.'
"We were like, 'Thank you for bringing that to our attention.'"
That vocabulary lesson helped the Spiders start changing their ways. They didn't start winning enough to contend in the A-10 -- and break through to the NCAA tournament -- until they became an elite defensive team. They still don't control the glass, ranking 254th in defensive rebounding percentage, but they grab enough boards to stay in games. "There's a thing I like to tell coach Mooney," Gonzalvez says. "It goes, 'We may not be strong, we may not be tough, but when you put us all together, we've got the right stuff.'