Profile Of A Possible Savior: Chris Mooney

Today's possible future hero: Chris Mooney, a 38-year-old who is in his sixth season as the head coach of the Richmond Spiders.  Mooney graduated from Princeton University, where he was a four-year starter on the basketball team in the early 1990s.  Before coming to Richmond, Mooney spent five seasons at Air Force, the last of those as head coach.

Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:

1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?

No. Air Force earned one NCAA tournament bid while he was assistant coach but missed out on post-season play in his one year as head coach. The Falcons were 18-12 (9-5) and finished third in the Mountain West that season. At Richmond his work only started paying real dividends last season. The Spiders went to the CBI in 2008 and 2009 and last year earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They finished 2010 ranked 24th in the AP Poll, and that's the only year one of his teams has cracked the polls.

2. Has he built a program from the ground up?

Not really. Richmond's history is modest but they've been reasonably successful by mid-major standards. From 1998 to 2004 they won at least 10 conference games every season and earned 2 NCAA bids and 3 NIT bids in that time.

3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?

Yes. The year prior to his arrival, the Spiders went 14-15 (8-8) and finished 7th in the A-10. Money's first two seasons were worse than that one, but as he got more and more of his own kids into the program, they started to take off. In 2008 they finished 4th in the league with a 16-15 (9-7) record. In 2009 they broke the 20-win barrier in Lowe-esque fashion (it took 36 games), won 9 conference games again, and finished 5th.

Last season was a true breakthrough: 26-9 (13-3), a 3rd-place finish behind league heavyweights Xavier and Temple, and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Among their quality regular season wins: Mississippi State, Missouri, Old Dominion, Florida, Temple, Dayton and Xavier. All of those schools ranked in the Pomeroy top 50 last season.

I mentioned earlier that Richmond finished the year ranked; it was the first time they'd cracked the polls in 24 years. Just the second time in 52 years.

4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?

No, although you could just insert an N/A here. He only spent a year at Air Force, which was his only other I-A head coaching job.

5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?

Nope. He began coaching at a high school, then transitioned to D-III Beaver College (heh), which then led him to Air Force and Richmond.

6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?

Yes. After Wednesday's win over St. Joe's, the Spiders are 6-2 and tied for third in the standings. By Pomeroy Rating, they're the fourth best team in the league. There is a clear first-level tier that includes Duquesne, Xavier, and Temple along with the Spiders, and then there is everybody else. Pomeroy projects a 12-4 conference record for Richmond.

7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?

Inconclusive. His track record is not great, but there are signs that he can put together a good D, namely last year's squad, which ranked 37th in defensive efficiency. His '06, '07, and '09 teams were pretty bad, while the '08 team ranked 91st. This season they're 76th.

His teams have consistently forced a good number of turnovers, and the field goal percentage defense has improved dramatically to the point that it is now one of their staples. Defensive rebounding is a major red flag: his Richmond teams have never finished in the top 200 in defensive rebounding percentage, and that's not for a lack of size.

8. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?

No. Including his 2011 class, he has signed 17 two-star players and 4 three-star players at Richmond. (Source: Scout's recruiting rankings.)

9. Does he run the Princeton offense?

Yes. Not surprisingly since he played for Pete Carril, he has been labeled with the dreaded scarlet P. Mooney doesn't much care for that label:

Richmond (24-7), which is probably bound for the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 2004, runs a version of the Princeton offense. But Mooney cringes when people assume his team passes the ball in a circle until there are 3 seconds left on the shot clock. Several N.B.A. teams, such as the Washington Wizards and the Sacramento Kings — Carril has been an assistant with both teams — have used versions of the Princeton approach.

Mooney said there were plenty of times when the Princeton teams of the early 1990s sped up the pace.

"The shot clock is not a part of teaching the offense," Mooney said. "But that’s hard to convey to someone who’s seen Princeton play three times, and all the scores are in the 40s."

While his teams tend to be slow--they're 272nd in adjusted tempo this year--they don't bomb threes to the extent one might think. Or at least not anymore. Beginning in 2008, they began slowly moving away from threes. Over the last 2.5 seasons, about 36-37 percent of their attempts have been threes, which is an above-average proportion, but not the extreme level typically associated with the Princeton offense or Herb Sendek's NC State teams. For comparison, Duke is at about 37% this year.

More generally, his Richmond teams shoot well, take good care of the ball, and have no interest whatsoever in offensive rebounds.

Some more about his philosophy here.

10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?

None. He's an east coast guy--a Philly kid--but that's about as close as it gets.

11. Any other random red flags or positives?

Mooney interviewed for the BC job last year, and according to Andy Katz's sources, was their top choice. The result of that was a seven-year extension with Richmond. I couldn't find any financial terms, but if there's a buyout clause it could present a problem for NC State. In 2007, Mooney called Richmond his dream job.

The AD at Air Force was pretty chapped about the way Mooney left:

"For him to ink a five-year contract starting the first of May and then to bolt on the (fifth) of May is amazing to me," Mueh told the Gazette newspaper Monday. "There are very few contracts that mean anything anymore. That's really sad in this business."

The contract did not include a buyout clause, so, um, sorry dude.

On the random positive side, Mooney's wife, also a Princeton grad, has a doctorate in psychology from Penn. They recently had a son who will probably end up a super genius, and if we lock the Mooneys up while the kid is at an impressionable age, we may be adding the next great NCSU scientist to the fold.

Summary:

 

Would he be better than Sid?

Definitely.

Would he be better than Herb?

I lean toward yes, but if you feel otherwise, I think that's reasonable too. Since he's only recently found real success at Richmond, it's impossible to tell if he is capable of sustaining it for a long period of time. His short track record leaves room for doubt.

Would he take the job if offered?

Depends--is he serious about that "dream job" business, or is he merely towing the line while he's in town? The fact that he interviewed with Boston College suggests that he is at least willing to explore his options. (But it could have been an exception seeing as how he's Catholic.) My guess is we would be able to lure him away.

How would I feel if he were hired?

Not thrilled, but pretty good. I like him. But I also like defensive rebounding. Gosh, I'm just not sure now.

How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?

Hoo boy. I have never tested this theory, but I believe that if you put a random sample of State fans in a room and yelled "Princeton offense," a huge fight would break out. Everyone would just start whaling on each other even though they're all complete strangers.

Okay, it wouldn't be that bad, but the P-word still inspires a lot of angst around these parts. I could see the dividing lines forming earlier than usual.

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