Ten minutes remained in Tennessee’s NCAA tournament First Four game against Iowa last March. Trailing 47-42, the Vols were in desperate need of a big play so they could seize control, or their first trip to the NCAAs in three years would be a short one.
That’s when Josh Richardson, standing alone in the left corner, took a pass from Armani Moore. The Hawkeyes’ Zack McCabe tried to close out, but he got there too late to slow down Richardson, who was on his way to the basket. Realizing what was about to happen, Iowa point guard Mike Gesell sprinted from the top of the key to contest, but all he got for his trouble was nearly being stuffed into the basket along with the ball as Richardson delivered a monster dunk.
The University of Dayton Arena crowd went berserk, and the Vols, lifted by Richardson’s high-wire act, went on to win. But that dunk paid more than short-term dividends. Richardson, previously differential to teammates Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae, learned that day, maybe on that one play, that his game had progressed to the point where he, too, could be counted on as a go-to scorer.
Richardson’s numbers in the NCAA tournament bode well for the future: 17 points, eight rebounds, two assists against Iowa; 15 points, five assists, two blocked shots against UMass; 26 points and three assists against Mercer; and 19 points, two assists and two blocks against Michigan.
In the Vols’ run to the Sweet 16, Richardson averaged 19.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and shot .617 from the field.
Looking back on the dunk and his second-half (13 points) exploits against Iowa, Richardson remembers being enlightened, his confidence soaring higher than he did when he almost amputated Gesell’s arm.
“After the second half against Iowa, it just opened my eyes,” Richardson said. “It opened my eyes to what I was capable of doing. I guess I always knew the whole time, but I just had never put it together in a game.
“We had so many guys around me we were trying to get the ball to. But after that second half, I realized I could find my spots, even within all that talent. So for the rest of the tournament, I just tried to capitalize on my open looks.”
As it turns out, the NCAA tournament was good practice for Richardson, who, after the departure to the NBA of Stokes and McRae and the graduation of Jeronne Maymon, now becomes Tennessee’s main man, a go-to guy who will be as valuable to his team as any player in the Southeastern Conference.
If new Vol coach Donnie Tyndall’s idea of the perfect player could be genetically duplicated in a laboratory, the model might well be Josh Richardson.
“First and foremost, he’s a coachable guy,” Tyndall said. “He doesn’t seem to have one bit of ego about him. Then there’s his size [6-foot-6, 6-10 wingspan], his athleticism and his basketball IQ. In our [full-court] press and our [match-up 2-3] zone, he should be really good in getting what we call ‘slap-down’ steals. With the minutes he’ll play, and our style, I think Josh has got a chance to lead the SEC in steals.”
Richardson is the only player still around from former coach Cuonzo Martin’s first recruiting class. That also makes him the best, and not just by attrition. Richardson was signed as a lock-down defender who could do some scoring damage in the midrange, and he clearly improved under Martin’s tutelage. Like a couple of younger players on the Vols’ roster, Richardson, loyal to the coach who recruited him, might have abandoned Tennessee after Martin left for California last April, but he chose to hang around and see what Tyndall was all about. Richardson seemed to know instinctively that he could plug into Tyndall’s system and excel.
“I’m excited about it,” Richardson said. “I feel like he wants to put me in a role that will help us be successful. Not just me, but the team. I think, despite all the newcomers, we’ve got a chance next year. Coach Tyndall’s got a great offense, and he’s helping us figure out his defense. I think it can be very disruptive, and with our [team] athleticism, we can create some match-up problems.”
Tyndall and his staff are counting on that.
“I can definitely see some mismatch potential for Josh,” Tennessee assistant Adam Howard said. “We can put him in the post, and he won’t get sped up. He’s strong enough to get a clean look at the rim.
“We also think he can come off down screens for wide-open shots, and he can definitely play off a lot of ball screens. He’s athletic enough to get out on the break and get out in front of guys. He can catch the ball at half court, take two or three dribbles, and put pressure on the rim.”
Richardson has been working hard in preparation, and there’s evidence to suggest that when Richardson gets in the gym, good things happen. Always one of the best midrange scorers on his team, Richardson decided a year ago to extend his game past the 3-point line. Last summer he shot hundreds of 3-pointers a day, not just aimlessly, but with the intention of perfecting consistent mechanics.
As a junior Richardson shot 34 percent from 3, more than good enough to earn him the green light to shoot from behind the arc at will. And it’s also good enough to keep defenses off balance. As Richardson showed with that dunk against Iowa, he can get to the rack.
Tyndall wants him to do more of that.
“Last year Josh got to the free-throw line 87 times,” Tyndall said. “Jordan McRae got there 212 times. We think Josh is capable of putting more pressure on the defense because we’ll space out the floor and give him room. I think he’ll play with confidence as the year goes along, because we’ll give him freedom and allow him to play through mistakes offensively.”
Tyndall also wants Richardson to take an active role on the boards. Tennessee’s young post players, though all of them are aggressive rebounders, will need help.
“I think Josh can be a 15 [points] and five [rebounds] guy,” Tyndall said. “Maybe average three assists, too. And as I said, I could see him leading the SEC in steals, so he’d be averaging anywhere from two and a half to three. He’s a guy that’s capable of that kind of production.”
Richardson can’t wait to get started. And in the short amount of time he’s worked with Tyndall in summer skills workouts, he’s seen enough to become a believer in the new coach and his drastically different system.
“Coach Tyndall doesn’t hold anything back, to say the least,” Richardson said. “If you’re messing up and doing things wrong, he’s gonna let you know about it. But that’s good for me, and I think good for our team. I know people won’t pick us very high [in the preseason polls], but I think we’ve got a chance to surprise them.”