KNOXVILLE -- Very early in his tenure as Tennessee's basketball coach, Donnie Tyndall was unsure if the best player he was inheriting from last year's team would stay.
That player, Josh Richardson, was coming off an NCAA tournament in which he'd scored 77 points and flashed an offensive ability that made for a nice pairing with his established defensive prowess, and he could have completed his degree and been eligible to play anywhere this season.
"There were rumors, like any time you take over a job, that he was thinking about leaving and maybe transferring," Tyndall recalled late last week. "I'd even heard specific schools, like Indiana. You never know what's true or not true."
The accolades that came Richardson's way Tuesday only confirmed what Tyndall already knew.
The Southeastern Conference coaches tabbed Richardson as a first-team All-SEC pick and named him as the only guard on the five-player all-defensive team as the league announced its postseason awards Tuesday afternoon.
Of the nine players on the first team, Richardson was the only one to play for a team that finished in the bottom half of the league standings, and he becomes the first Tennessee player to make multiple all-defensive teams. He made that group as a junior as well.
He also was named to the 10-player All-District IV team, which covers players from Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, by the U.S. Basketball Writers' Association.
Richardson finished sixth in the SEC in scoring (15.6 points per game) and led the conference in steals (62) and minutes per game (36.2) despite playing the roles of point guard and leader for a team that returned just four players from a Sweet 16 team.
"I don't think it's very hard to embrace it, because I knew I would have to play that role this year," he said last week. "It kind of just came to me naturally. It's been a fun ride this year, and I definitely had fun leading these guys.
"I think they've gotten a lot better over the year."
With 18 points in Tennessee's meeting with Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament Thursday night -- or beyond if the Vols win -- Richardson would crack the top 30 of Tennessee's all-time scoring charts. And he scored just 97 points his freshman season.
In his last 34 games dating back to the start of last season's NCAA tournament, Richardson has scored 546 points. He netted just 662 in the first 100 games of his Vols career.
"When you watch tapes from last year, until the SEC and NCAA tournaments, he was good but not great," Tyndall said. "He was great in the tournaments. I just told him the biggest thing and my concern, I told him, was you're going to go from option three or four to option one.
"You're going to draw the best defender, multiple defenders. People are going to game-plan to stop you. I think we've all seen that to be proven true, but he's handled it like a champ, embraced that role and been fantastic all year."
Six of Richardson's career 20-point games came this season, and he's scored in double figures nearly as many times this season (26) as he did in the first three years of his career (27). He poured in a career-high 30 points against Mississippi State and scored 27 against Vanderbilt in Nashville in February.
Richardson scored nearly a fourth of Tennessee's points and assisted on more than 18 percent of his teammates' made shots while recording the seventh-most steals for a single season in Tennessee history.
All of this came after Tyndall went nervously into his first individual meeting with Richardson.
"He came in, looked me in my eye in our conversation, and we had a great meeting," the coach recalled. "I told him I expected him to be our leader, and when he left my office, I never got the sense, unlike I did with some others, that he was telling me something I just wanted to hear.
"I believed what he told me. My first impression was a guy of character, a guy that'd look you in the eye and speak to you. I felt like I could trust him literally from our first meeting."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.