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Josh Richardson: The Volunteer

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Quietly and steadily, Josh Richardson turned in a better career than many of us realize, an impressive feat for one of the SEC's most valuable players this season.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

I'm known to dabble in hyperbole and history, but on the eve of Josh Richardson's senior day, here are three questions I find compelling:

  • Has any SEC player been more valuable to his team this year?
  • Has any Tennessee player ever had a more natural progression over all four years of his career?
  • Will this go down as one of the most underrated careers in this program?
Here's how Richardson stacks up with the rest of the SEC this season:
  • Minutes Per Game:  36.1, 1st
  • Points Per Game:  15.7, 6th
  • Steals:  58, 1st
  • Assists:  104, 11th
And here's the leading scorer for every SEC team, with the percentage of points they score for their team:
  • Alabama:  Levi Randolph, 15.3 ppg, 22.8%
  • Arkansas:  Bobby Portis, 17.5 ppg, 22.1%
  • Auburn:  KT Harrell, 17.9 ppg, 26.3%
  • Florida:  Michael Frazier II, 13.2 ppg, 20.6%
  • Georgia:  Marcus Thornton, 12.4 ppg, 17.9%
  • Kentucky:  Aaron Harrison, 11.3 ppg, 15.0%
  • LSU:  Jarell Martin, 16.6 ppg, 22.4%
  • Mississippi State:  Craig Sword, 10.8 ppg, 17.4%
  • Missouri:  Johnathan Williams III, 12.1 ppg, 19.8%
  • Ole Miss:  Stefan Moody, 16.7 ppg, 22.8%
  • South Carolina:  Duane Notice, 11.3 ppg, 17.3%
  • Tennessee:  Josh Richardson, 15.7 ppg, 24.9%
  • Texas A&M:  Danuel House, 14.8 ppg, 21.7%
  • Vanderbilt:  Damian Jones, 14.5 ppg, 21.0%
So only KT Harrell carries a larger scoring load, but there's a significantly smaller drop from Harrell to Auburn's second leading scorer (Antoine Mason, 15.1 ppg) than Richardson to Armani Moore (11.1 ppg).  And the Vols are 15-14 (7-10), besting Auburn's 12-18 (4-13).  If you're making the argument for Most Valuable Player, I think Tennessee's wins and losses are more significantly impacted by Richardson; the worst things we feared about this first season under Donnie Tyndall would have become reality without Richardson playing 36 minutes and doing so much on both ends of the floor.

As far as I can tell, this is the first thing we ever wrote about Josh Richardson on this blog after the November 2011 Maui Invitational:

Other things to watch include Jordan McRae's shot selection and playing time in a close game; freshman Josh Richardson isn't nearly the scoring threat McRae is, but Richardson got all the overtime minutes against Memphis because he was playing better defense.

That was his early identity:  three-star freshman defensive stopper, "a Cuonzo Martin guy."  And now at the end of his senior season, he might be the most valuable player in the league, he might play basketball professionally, and he's going to crack a number of very impressive lists at this university:  one of 35 players with 1,200+ points, ninth all-time in games started, and third all-time in games played (behind Wayne Chism and Cameron Tatum).

We watch some of these freshmen and we wait for The Leap.  Scotty Hopson.  Jordan McRae.  But Josh Richardson made The Progression.  I can't remember a Tennessee player who made such positive, "normal" growth during the course of his career.  Not a freshman who showed up and wowed or a senior who rode the bench for three years before arriving.  Josh Richardson got better every single season:

YEAR MIN PPG 3P% FT% AST STL
2012 16.0 2.9 23.7 64.0 0.7 0.5
2013 30.7 7.9 21.4 69.2 1.5 1.1
2014 30.3 10.3 34.0 79.3 1.5 0.7
2015 36.1 15.7 36.7 79.1 3.6 2.0

These days in college basketball it's so easy to just decide who a kid is as a freshman.  When Josh Richardson shoots 64% from the line his first year, you just assume he's always going to be a poor free throw shooter.  When he plays nearly 31 minutes a night as a sophomore but hits just 21.4% of his threes, you just assume he's never going to be good at it.

And when he's given his all for Tennessee after three seasons and two points from an Elite Eight, a surprise coaching departure completely changes the roster and his role.  Before Donnie Tyndall, the question was whether Josh Richardson could be the alpha dog.  After his 2014 NCAA Tournament performance - a mini-leap in a steady career - we questioned if he could score like that when defenses weren't distracted by Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes.  But when Cuonzo left, Tyndall entered, and players left town, we asked the same important question, but hey, also, can you play point guard?  And full-court press?  And do it playing more minutes than any Tennessee player in 20 years?

And the answer to every question with Josh Richardson has always been, "Yes."  A quiet yes, without complaint, even in a tumultuous time for Tennessee Basketball.

I don't know how Richardson will be remembered 20 years from now.  Tennessee's run to the Sweet 16 last year feels almost certain to be more memorable for the petition that preceded it and the turnover that followed it, and even if not Bruce Pearl's Vols made the Sweet 16 a realistic benchmark.  If the Vols win again soon, the future will overshadow that season as well.  Richardson was believed to be the fourth best player on Cuonzo Martin's second and third teams.

But what Richardson did needs to be celebrated now and remembered later.  His 19.3 points in those four NCAA Tournament games last year is the second best average in UT tournament history for those who appeared in more than two games, trailing only Reggie Johnson's 19.8 in five games in the late 70's and early 80's.  That means Josh Richardson was a more consistent scorer in the NCAA Tournament than any of Bruce Pearl or Cuonzo Martin's players. Not C.J. Watson, Chris Lofton, Wayne Chism, Tobias Harris, Scotty Hopson, Jordan McRae, or Jarnell Stokes.  None of the guys we are quicker to associate this decade of ascension with.  Quietly, steadily, it was Josh Richardson.  The 26 he scored against Mercer are tied with Jarnell Stokes against UMass and Ernie Grunfeld against Syracuse as the third most in UT NCAA Tournament history.

Donnie Tyndall's first season isn't likely to get remembered either.  But getting a player like Richardson to not only buy-in to something new, but to have him excel at it?  To play point guard for the very first time, lead the league in steals, and mean more to your team than any player in the league meant to his?

Quietly, Josh Richardson has had quite the career in Knoxville.  And in the midst of a couple years when we may have forgotten how to celebrate as well as possible, I hope Richardson gets the applause and the respect he deserves, now and always.