Conference tournaments don't heat up until next week. But to Richmond coach John Beilein, he's been coaching in a win-or-go-home scenario most of this month.
The Spiders, who are joining the Atlantic 10 next season, are ineligible for next week's Colonial Athletic Association tournament. That means their only NCAA hope is an at-large berth, a goal most bracket projections on the Internet say is still within reach.
Richmond is 19-6 heading into today's crucial CAA home game with George Mason. Richmond is 10-4 in the league, George Mason is 11-4. A win today and in the season finale Tuesday at Virginia Commonwealth would give Richmond no worse than a tie for the CAA title and another notch on its NCAA resume.
The Spiders are ranked 52nd in the Ratings Percentage Index according to CollegeRPI.com, clearly on the bubble for teams hoping to be selected.
"I've watched the RPIs more than I have most seasons, but it's not a religion yet," Beilein, the ex-Canisius coach, said this week by phone. "It's such an unusual situation, one that none of us have ever been involved in. We just aren't in control of our destiny."
First some background: Richmond opted to leave the CAA for the A-10 last year. The CAA, however, wanted three years notice. The A-10, of course, wouldn't take a school if it had to wait that long for it to enter the league so Richmond simply accepted the invitation to join and told the CAA it was leaving.
The CAA responded by citing a rule in its by-laws that allows it to preclude a school from conference postseason play. Never mind the fact that an NCAA appearance by Richmond would put money into the CAA offers, not the A-10's.
"Hey, they can make any rule they want," Beilein said. "It's their conference. In the long run, they're not being fair to these athletes. Our kids know what's going on. I didn't know how to react. A school like Minnesota has broken every rule in the book and they're still playing in tournaments. We didn't do anything but not give people three years notice so go figure."
The decision has left Richmond scratching for every win it can get to impress the NCAA committee. The Spiders posted quality December road wins at Mississippi State and George Washington and started the season 7-1 (the lone loss was by eight to Wake Forest).
Richmond is 8-1 in its last nine games, another selling point for the committee. The Spiders shut down American, 73-32, on Wednesday, their lowest opponent point total since 1953.
"I haven't coached a great deal differently except for early in the year," Beilein said. "Maybe we'd spend 15 more minutes in practice doing prep for late-game plays. Traditionally, you wouldn't because you're working for the long run. But we thought getting a road win at Mississippi State and George Washington, which we did and Wake Forest, which we almost did, would all be pivotal. They were like CAA games almost."
Eventually, however, Beilein had to pull back after his team missed its final 17 shots in a 52-48 loss to the College of Charleston in the Tournament of Champions at Charlotte. The defeat cost Richmond a chance to meet North Carolina the next night and help boost its RPI. The Spiders did, however, post a quality win over Massachusetts in the consolation game.
"We really wanted that matchup with North Carolina," Beilein said. "They didn't have (Ronald) Curry in at point guard yet and (Julius) Peppers hadn't reported from football season."
Beilein is 75-38 at Richmond since leaving Canisius following the 1996-97 season. He took the Spiders to the NCAA Tournament in 1998, beating South Carolina as a No. 14 seed in the first round. His team got to the CAA finals last year before losing to NC-Wilmington.
Beilein said he thinks 20 wins and an RPI below 70 would clinch a spot in the National Invitation Tournament. The A-10 is expected to join the lobbying effort on Richmond's behalf with the NIT.
Around the rim
Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince is averaging better than 23 points and six rebounds during the Wildcats' eight-game winning streak, hitting 58 percent from the field. And, yes, St. Bonaventure still should have fouled him at the end of regulation last March. . . . Best team you don't know about: Hofstra. The Pride is 22-4, have won 12 straight and their four losses are by a combined 13 points. All this the year after guard Speedy Claxton graduated from the team that lost to Oklahoma State here in last year's NCAAs. But with a 67 RPI, don't look for Hofstra to get an NCAA at-large bid if it slips in the A-East tournament. . . . Xavier finished 13-1 in its first year on campus at the Cintas Center after moving from the aging Cincinnati Gardens. The $46 million palace started to become a raucous home after coach Skip Prosser called out his team's fans on his weekly radio show. Said Prosser: "You always worry when you have luxury boxes and lounges that your fans could become a wine-and-cheese crowd. You don't want that." . . . Hey, didn't you used to be Seton Hall? The Pirates lost to Rutgers for the second time this season Wednesday and are just a game ahead of the Knights in the battle to stay out of last place in the Big East's West division. The last-place team doesn't qualify for the conference tournament. Of course, the NIT can then lose all credibility and take the Pirates anyway just on name recognition while deserving mid-majors from conferences like the MAAC get left out.