DENVER — No matter how hard they resist, how much they oppose, the Richmond Spiders can’t seem to distance themselves from the label of “giant killer.”
An upset of Charles Barkley-led Auburn in the 1984 NCAA tournament and then another of second-seeded Syracuse in 1991 has cemented a lifetime legacy.
And while it’s nice to be known as a scary Cinderella squad, the Spiders wouldn’t mind a little more validity, either. To be taken just a little more seriously.
The 12th-seeded Spiders (27-7) face fifth-seeded Vanderbilt (23-10) on Thursday in the opening round of the Southwest region. It’s a Commodores team that’s struggled at times to close out games this season after jumping out to big leads.
So, again, Richmond becomes a trendy pick to spring an upset.
That “giant killer” label still persists, even decades later.
Even if the Spiders haven’t won on this stage since surprising South Carolina as a No. 14 seed in 1998.
“I know people don’t mean it negatively about us, but I don’t think it necessarily applies anymore,” Richmond coach Chris Mooney said of the label. “We have accomplished a lot.”
Especially this crew that’s led by seniors Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson. The talented duo are averaging a combined 34 points a game running the team’s Princeton-style offense.
Anderson erupted for 23 points to help the Spiders capture the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament crown by dispatching Dayton 67-54 in the finals last Sunday.
For their late-season run, the Spiders can thank an impromptu touch football game.
Following a loss to Temple on Feb. 17, Mooney took his players outside for a friendly game, just to break up the monotony of practice and shake the Spiders out of their funk.
Mooney realized it wasn’t the time to push or prod, but to cut loose. The tactic certainly worked as Richmond has won seven straight heading into this tournament.
“We needed to take a step back and take a breath,” Mooney said. “We’ve played well since.”
Last season, Richmond entered the NCAA tournament in a rather unfamiliar role — the favorite.
And the Spiders were quickly bounced from the field, losing to tenth-seeded Saint Mary’s as Omar Samhan scored 29 points.
Richmond simply got a taste of what it has typically dished out.
But the teams insisted the loss had plenty of educational value.
Namely, not to get too caught up in the moment.
“This year we’re here to handle business, just to really focus on making it past the first round,” Harper said.
Richmond faces a Vanderbilt team led by sophomore John Jenkins, the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer and one of the premier 3-point shooters in the country.
Even with a sore toe on his left foot, Jenkins can’t wait to step back onto the court, wipe away some bad memories.
The Commodores have stumbled in their last two appearances in the tournament, losing to No. 13 seed Murray State on a last-second shot last season and falling to Siena, another 13th seed, in 2008.
A spotty track record in the tournament of late has led many to deduce that Vandy’s ripe for an upset, especially since 12 seeds have a history of springing big wins in the tournament.
Jenkins dismisses such speculation with a casual shrug.
“We just have to play basketball,” Jenkins said. “Upsets happen. We got upset last year. We’re trying to avoid the same thing.
“Hopefully we can prove everybody wrong in this tournament.”
Growing up less than 30 minutes from Nashville, Tenn., Jenkins was, quite naturally, a big fan of the Commodores.
His biggest tournament memory?
“All the ones I have is when they lose, really,” Jenkins said. “We’re trying to change our fate. Trying to start something new here.”
Richmond definitely has Vandy’s full attention, especially given the Spiders’ penchant for upsets.
“There’s no sneaking up in the NCAA tournament because none of us are that foolish,” Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said. “I think that giant killer thing, that went away a long time ago. They certainly knocked off some giants and I remember it.
“Their program has elevated to a much higher level now.”