Richmond is not likely to beat Kansas in Friday's Southwest Regional semifinal in San Antonio's Alamodome. But the point has been made. The Atlantic 10 champions have made a great run. And so has their coach.
After finishing his playing career at Princeton, Mooney, 38, immediately went into coaching, first as head coach at Lansdale Catholic High (3 years) and then at Beaver College (3 years) before it became Arcadia. He left Beaver in 2000 to teach the Princeton way at Air Force as Joe Scott's associate head coach. Air Force had its first winning season in a quarter-century in Scott's last season there.
When Scott went back to Princeton as head coach in 2004 (an experiment that did not work even a little bit) Mooney took over at Air Force, becoming the fourth-youngest head coach in Division I.
One 18-win season later, he was off to Richmond. The Spiders went 13-17 his first season, 8-22 his second. Then, Kevin Anderson and Justin Harper, now seniors, signed on.
"That was their 91st win yesterday," Mooney said Sunday night while he was waiting to see if his team would play Kansas or Illinois. "That's a school record, which is impressive. What's more impressive is they joined the program after we won eight games. They did not get on a moving train."
Brilliant point guard Anderson, a 2,000-point scorer, and Harper, one of the most versatile big men in America, combine to average 34.5 points per game. Fifth-year senior Dan Geriot (Springfield Delco) is the third-leading scorer.
It has been quite a run at Richmond, but like Cornell's a year ago with all those seniors, it might be coming to an end. If Mooney is going to make a move, now is the time.
Justin Baxter was recruited out of Pennsbury High to play for Mooney at Beaver. His freshman season was Mooney's last season.
"We started four freshmen my freshman year," Baxter said. "We had made a big-time transformation. They had been last the year before. We came in second in our division, made the playoffs at a school that's really not known for its athletics or its basketball program at all."
Baxter is not surprised at Mooney's success.
"I knew he would get a shot at some point [at Division I]," Baxter said. "Did I think it was going to be after the first year I was there? I was hoping no."
Not because he didn't want Mooney to do well. He just wanted to have him as his coach for a while longer.
Baxter, an assistant coach at Neumann University and a phys-ed teacher at St. Dominic's in the Northeast, learned a lot of basketball from Frank Sciolla, his high school coach. He learned more from Mooney, one of Sciolla's good friends.
"I'm not sure if I play college basketball if it's not in the offense that he runs," Baxter said.
Nobody who watched Mooney play at Princeton was surprised he has become a successful coach. He scored more than 1,000 points and also had more than 350 rebounds and 200 assists. He played the game the right way. And he is teaching what he knows, the Princeton way.
When these Richmond seniors were freshmen, the Spiders went 16-15. Then it was 20-16. Last season, it was 26-9, a loss to Temple in the A-10 championship game and a first-round NCAA Tournament loss. This season, it is 29-7, that A-10 title, a first-round NCAA upset of Vanderbilt, another win over Morehead State and the lowest surviving seed (12) in this tournament.
"It's a dream that you don't really think can happen," Mooney said. "This is the most important event for a basketball fan every year. To be part of it is incredible, let alone to move on into the Sweet 16. It's overwhelming."
It is, Mooney acknowledged, a "long way from Lansdale Catholic [and Beaver College]."
And it has only been 11 years since he left Division III to be a Division I assistant.
"It's really unbelievable just to be taking the court Friday night in the Sweet 16 in a dome," Mooney said.
Mooney, like most coaches, always imagined this.
"The dream is strong," he said. "There are a lot of us who coach who feel just great that we're allowed to make our living in basketball. That's kind of a thrill in and of itself."
And so is coaching in the Sweet 16. When Richmond takes the floor Friday night, there will be just 12 teams left with a chance to win the 2011 national championship. Now, that probably is dreaming too strong for Mooney at Richmond, but just being there will be every bit the thrill that can't be duplicated. *