Tennessee Vols' Josh Richardson relishes defending at 'elite level'

Tennessee Vols' Josh Richardson relishes defending at 'elite level'

March 11th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee guard Josh Richardson dunks over KT Harrell during the Vols' dominating win last week over Auburn. Richardson has been even more impressive in his shutdown defense against top SEC scorers in recent games.

Tennessee guard Josh Richardson dunks over KT Harrell...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - As he shadowed Missouri guard Jabari Brown all afternoon Saturday, Tennessee guard Josh Richardson flashed an eye to the scoreboard every so often.

He liked what he saw, too.

In the Volunteers' two blowout wins last week, Richardson did a masterful job defensively against the SEC's top two scorers. Just a couple of days after limiting Auburn's Chris Denson, the league's No. 2 scorer, to three points on 1-of-10 shooting, the junior kept Brown, the conference's top scorer, without a basket until the game's meaningless final moments.

And Richardson was fully aware of the job he was doing.

"I knew the whole time," he said Monday. "Every other play I was looking up at the scoreboard just trying to keep [Brown's] number down.

"I was definitely excited after the game that I was able to stay on his tail. I think I got in his head a little bit, just trying to bother him with the ball. I think when other guys were guarding him, when I wasn't on him, I think they did a great job, too."

It was the first time this season Brown failed to reach 10 points, and for much of Saturday's 72-45 Tennessee win, the player averaging 20 points per game was stuck on two. His only basket came with 1:16 left on the clock. In SEC play, Brown had scored at least 20 points a dozen times, including a 33-point performance against Kentucky.

Denson had scored at least 25 points eight times this season and, like Brown, hung 24 points on the Vols earlier this season.

"Since the Mississippi State game, I think he's defending at an elite level," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of Richardson. "I thought he was always a good defender -- I thought he was our defensive stopper -- but I think now he's on pace to being an elite defender. When you can shut guys down, those types of scorers, it's not easy.

"Again, with the new rules, I've got to give credit where it's due. You've got to be careful and you can't hand-check as much. When you're able to guard guys like that at that level for so many minutes, it's fun to watch and it's impressive."

The 6-foot-6 Richardson was a lightly recruited three-star prospect out of Edmond, Okla., when he picked Tennessee over Georgia Tech, Oklahoma, Penn State and TCU and signed with the Vols during the spring of 2011.

Yet he's far and away been the best member of the class -- Wes Washpun (Northern Iowa) and Yemi Makanjuola (UNC Wilmington) transferred, Quinton Chievous plays sparingly and junior college transfer Dwight Miller played minimally in two seasons -- Martin had to cobble together after he was hired in late March that year.

"When I stepped on campus, I wasn't a very good shooter or scorer," Richardson said, "so I just knew that to get on the floor I could play defense, and that has stuck with me."

After starting nine times as a freshman, Richardson has started 63 out of a possible 64 games the past two years while improving his offensive game. He has hit 30 3-point baskets this season after making just 18 in his first two years and raised his accuracy rates from the 3-point line (21.4 to 37.0) and the free-throw line (69.2 to 80.3).

Yet Richardson has more of a happy-go-lucky persona than the no-nonsense approach typically associated with lockdown defenders, and Martin said after Tennessee's win at Auburn last week that he had talked to a few players about having more of a "relentless focus" with their approach.

"Some guys, they can keep the atmosphere loose, but sometimes it might be too loose," he explained. "You don't want guys uptight going into games, and I talked to a couple guys about really locking in and taking a more serious approach in everything they do, and I think it's paid off for us."

Richardson was one of those players.

"Everybody knows I'm a goofy guy or whatever," he said. "[Martin] said that I wasn't approaching the game as serious as I could be, because you know, I kind of joke around in warmups and stuff like that. I kind of took heed to it, so I started approaching practice a lot more serious, approaching the game a lot more serious and keeping guys focused.

"Ever since I've been doing that, the results have been showing, so I feel like that was good advice that he gave me."

Since then, he's locked down two very good scorers and relished it.

"I started sensing that Jabari was frustrated when I remember him getting a travel call and him slamming the ball down," Richardson said. "When I get that moment of seeing the guy I'm guarding get frustrated, that makes me want to play even harder. That's like smelling blood in the water for a shark.

"It gets me going even more."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.