PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP)—The giant-killing Richmond Spiders are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.
And this time they’re wearing white.
The only school in NCAA history to win as a No. 12, 13, 14 and 15 seed is the favorite in its first-round game for the first time, earning a seventh seed for Thursday’s game against Saint Mary’s. So the Spiders packed their white, home uniforms when they came to Providence, and left behind the underdog status that had served them well in seven previous tourney appearances.
“We’ve embraced our tradition for having success in the postseason,” said coach Chris Mooney, who’s in his fifth year with the Atlantic 10 school. “But (the players) are more worried about their video game tournament they’re in. I think they are interested in it, and they do embrace it, but for those guys it’s a very long time ago.”
Richmond lost to Temple in the league championship game, but it earned its third at-large berth thanks to a 26-8 record and some wins over power conference teams like Missouri and Mississippi State and then-ranked teams like No. 13 Florida, No. 17 Temple and No. 24 Xavier.
That was good enough for the Spiders’ first trip to the NCAAs since 2004 and a No. 7 seed—their highest ever.
“I think we’re one of the best teams in the country,” guard David Gonzalvez said. “I think once tip-off starts any team can win. That’s what it’s about, is about big upsets and close games. And the games that get on the ESPN Classic.”
Richmond has been involved in more than its share of those.
In 1984, coach Dick Tarrant’s 12th-seeded Spiders beat Auburn and future NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley 72-71. In ’88, they knocked out Bobby Knight’s defending champion Indiana as a No. 13 seed, and then beat fifth-seeded Georgia Tech for their only trip to the round of 16.
Three years later, Richmond became the first No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2, ousting Syracuse from the tournament. In ’98, John Beilein’s 14th-seeded Spiders knocked out South Carolina.
“For us to be on the other side now is great,” said Mooney, who made two trips to the tournament as a Princeton player and broke a 40-year NCAA drought at Air Force in 2004.
“I think that’s what Coach Tarrant and Coach Beilein were working toward all that time: to get to the point where we are now, to be able to wear the home shirts in the first round. So we’re excited about it. But of course tomorrow when the game jumps or the game tips off it won’t matter who the higher seed is.”
Richmond’s postseason success hasn’t always been matched in the regular season. The Spiders have reached the Top 25 just three times in their history— and just once in the last 50 years—before peaking at No. 24 this season.
“When we play teams like Mississippi State and Missouri, the giant-killer name would come back out. If that’s what it takes for people to look at us as winners, we’ll take that,” Richmond guard Kevin Anderson said.
“Maybe it’s not looked at as upsetting people this year, because we’ve had a big year, but that doesn’t take away from our mentality as being the team that beats big teams and good teams. And Saint Mary’s is a good team.”
Saint Mary’s, which won the West Coast Conference, hasn’t won a tournament game since 1959. But center Omar Samhan was a starter on the 2008 team that lost to Miami, and guard Mickey McConnell was a reserve, giving the Gaels experience that Richmond doesn’t have.
“I think last year when we came here we were just happy to be here, we were excited we were part of the tournament. It was so much fun, we’re in the bracket,” Samhan said. “This year is different; we want to win. We came with that intent. … I think that’s the biggest difference.”
And it would make an even bigger difference if they actually win.
“It hasn’t been done at Saint Mary’s in 52 years. It’s obviously not easy to do,” coach Randy Bennett said. “But we have an opportunity to do it.”