RICHMOND, Va. — When the Richmond men’s basketball team gathered at midcourt during a recent practice, it was difficult to discern the head coach from his players.
Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, Chris Mooney, 37, stood with his team without standing out. He has a trim build, thick brown hair and a face that could make a bartender think twice. But his youthful appearance belies a winding basketball journey.
After Mooney graduated from Princeton in 1994, where he was an all-Ivy League forward for Coach Pete Carril, he worked as a law clerk, a high school English teacher and a kind of wedding planner. Coaching basketball, financially speaking, was a side job.
But Mooney was grinding toward an opportunity like this one.
This season, he has already led Richmond (24-7) to the most regular-season wins in its 96-year history. The Spiders, who have defeated Florida, Missouri, Mississippi State and Temple, will probably reach the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 2004.
“Chris always thought this group of kids could do something special,” said Mooney’s wife of 12 years, Lia. “It’s been amazing.”
Mooney was raised in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia. When he was in third grade and his older brother, Kevin, shot baskets on a Nerf hoop in the family’s home, Mooney would put on his Communion suit, scribble plays in a notebook and pretend to be a coach.
After sprouting to 6 feet 6 inches and starring for Archbishop Ryan High School, Mooney enrolled at Princeton, where he was a four-year starter. He studied Carril and his legendary offense closely, realizing the system was more a style than a rigid set of plays.
“Chris was always curious,” said Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody, who was an assistant at Princeton when Mooney played there. “Some guys, when they’re young, want to be doctors or engineers. He wanted to be a coach all along, and he picked up things from a lot of people.”
Mooney graduated with a degree in English, and opportunities to coach basketball were fleeting. He first worked as a law clerk, sorting files and moving boxes for a firm that was run by two Princeton fans.
Mooney applied for the head-coaching opening at Lansdale High School in Pennsylvania by faxing his handwritten résumé. Frank Giovonizzi, who was the athletic director and assistant principal, was put off by Mooney’s approach but intrigued by his pedigree.
“Then he came in for an interview and was horrible,” Giovonizzi said. “I told him to come back for a second interview wearing a sweatsuit and sneakers, because I thought he’d be more comfortable. He was, and he nailed it.”
Mooney was hired to coach basketball and teach English, sometimes slipping U2 lyrics into the poetry curriculum. He was demonstrative on the sideline — Giovonizzi sometimes sat on the bench to calm him — but he was also successful, guiding the Crusaders to the top of the Pioneer Athletic Conference.
In 1997, Mooney was hired to coach Division III Beaver College, which is in Glenside, Pa., and is now Arcadia University. The coaching position was part time, so Mooney also coordinated the use of campus facilities, including a castle that held wedding receptions.
He showed the space to newly engaged couples and helped them decide where the band should play and how tables should be arranged.
“I was 25 years old and I’d never even had people over for dinner,” Mooney said. “And here I am helping brides prepare for weddings.”
The basketball team did not have a manager, so Mooney washed uniforms, swept the court and filled water coolers. There were just six players on the roster during much of Mooney’s first season. When the two captains met with referees before games, the other players would stop warm-ups and wait.
In 2000, Mooney was hired as an assistant at Air Force, which was coached by the former Princeton assistant Joe Scott. Mooney became the Falcons’ coach in 2004. The next season, he was hired by Richmond, going just 21-39 in his first two seasons.
But this year the Spiders returned four starters from a 20-win team, along with center Dan Geriot, who missed last season with a knee injury after leading the team in scoring as a sophomore.
Within this close-knit group, the team’s managers and stars spend most of their free time together, and walk-ons are chided or praised as much as scholarship players.
“Coach says the only rule around here is: don’t be a jerk,” the senior guard David Gonzalvez said. “That pretty much covers everything.”
Richmond has used Mooney’s version of the Princeton offense as well as a pesky matchup zone defense to surge into the national spotlight. On Feb. 15, the team was ranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1986.
The university’s athletic director, Jim Miller, said people now stopped him to talk about basketball when he wore a Spiders shirt in public. When some players recently ate at an Italian restaurant here, their meal was interrupted by several well-wishers.
Of course, this treatment is not unusual for an N.C.A.A tournament team. But the Spiders had recently operated more anonymously, overshadowed in their city by Virginia Commonwealth, which has reached two of the last three N.C.A.A. tournaments.
“I remember when we were 8-22, and things were bad,” Geriot said. “Like, some events were for frats, and we weren’t really allowed to go to them. Now, it’s like, ‘Come on over, fellas.’ This has been the time of our lives.”
Richmond was once an N.C.A.A. tournament darling; it was the first program to win first-round games as a 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th seed. This season, the Spiders are in line for a higher seeding. But if their story does turn a bit Cinderella, their coach knows how to find the castle — as long as it is not already booked for a wedding.