Hubbs big key as Vols enter life after Richardson

Hubbs big key as Vols enter life after Richardson

March 22nd, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Arkansas forward Moses Kingsley (33) loses the ball against Tennessee guard Robert Hubbs III (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, March 13, 2015, in Nashville.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Josh Richardson walked to the locker room one final time wearing a Tennessee basketball jersey after the Volunteers ended the season more than a week ago with a Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinal loss to Arkansas.

Sure, the senior would have liked that final trip to come have in this week's NCAA tournament.

The steep task of pulling off four wins in Nashville would have made that possible, but Richardson was more realistic in what he'd hoped for in the final games of his career.

His simple request for his team: Leave everything on the Bridgestone Arena court.

"I think both games we came out and left it all out there," Richardson said after the Vols' rally fell short against Arkansas one night after they pulled off a similar comeback against Vanderbilt. "I'm proud of the guys and how they played.

"It's on them next year now."

If the uncertainty surrounding coach Donnie Tyndall amid the NCAA investigation into his former program at Southern Mississippi is the biggest off-court question Tennessee's basketball program is facing this offseason, how the Vols will handle life after Richardson is the biggest on-court query.

Richardson led Tennessee this season in scoring (16 ppg), shooting percentage (.461), free-throw percentage (.798), assists (3.6), steals (2.1) and minutes played (36.3).

He scored more than a quarter of his team's points and assisted on more than 21 percent of the shots others made. In 32 games, he led the Vols in scoring and assists 20 times each.

The void he leaves is going to be massive.

"He was unbelievable in regard to being a great leader, a great teammate," Tyndall said after the Arkansas loss. "Obviously he's a fantastic basketball player. I'm very, very proud of the way Josh grew as a person in regard to leading outside of by example, how he became a vocal leader.

"He wasn't afraid to challenge guys. He would encourage the young guys all season long. I don't know if he would ever want to do it, but if he wanted to get into coaching, I think he'd be a heck of a coach one day."

Tennessee guard Josh Richardson (1) celebrates a basket against Vanderbilt as Tennessee forward Derek Reese (23) look son during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament, Thursday, March 12, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Tennessee guard Josh Richardson (1) celebrates a basket...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall calls a play against Arkansas during their game in the quarterfinal round of the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, March 13, 2015, in Nashville.

Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall calls a play...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

So where does Tennessee go from here?

The overachieving group finishing three spots higher in the SEC than their preseason prediction, but that was in large part due to Richardson. Without the All-SEC guard, it's fair to wonder if Tennessee's season might have resembled Missouri's. The Tigers won just nine games and finished at the bottom of the league.

"I think we definitely have squeezed as much as we could out of either," Richardson said. "From the lack of size down low, from the lack of a true point guard from the beginning of the season, I think guys have just adapted to what they need to. I think we did it at a decent level this year."

Armani Moore and Kevin Punter were joint second-leading scorers at 10.3 points per game, Derek Reese averaged seven points and six rebounds in SEC games and Devon Baulkman and Tariq Owens each flashed some promise late in the season.

The most intriguing returning player, though, is Robert Hubbs, the former five-star recruit who showed some of his undeniable ability at different points during what essentially was his freshman season.

"I just have to keep working," he said after the season-ending loss. "Just being determined, stay in the gym and all that. It'll take care of itself.

"I've definitely got to take it to another level," he added.

Eight of the 11 games in which Hubbs scored in double figures came in SEC play, and his best game might have been against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament, in which he matched a career high with 16 points and made multiple big shots in crunch time of the comeback win.

"I just see his potential," Richardson said after that game. "I need him to see his potential. Once he realizes how good he can be and how hard he has to work, I think he'll get it."

For all those moments when Hubbs showed his promise, there were others when he was largely invisible. After his tying shot in the overtime win at Vanderbilt in February, Hubbs scored 10 total points in the next three games.

Hubbs shot 33.3 percent from 3-point range this season, but he took only 33 free throws in 32 games.

Tyndall and his staff consistently have stressed to Hubbs that he needs to be aggressive throughout games and play lower to the floor, which will help him turn the corner on defenders, when he drives to get to his shooting spots.

"That's something he really, really has to work on," Tyndall said before the SEC tournament. "We've talked about it a ton. His mentality needs to be to be more aggressive or to stay aggressive, but playing lower to the ground and working hard on that this summer will be imperative for him to be able to stay aggressive and drive the ball more."

"In practice and film sessions, I'm constantly pointing out opportunities he had to drive the basketball and be aggressive, and there's some days that he's done that and other days that he hasn't. It just needs to be consistent. Playing lower to the floor and being more athletic in his stance will allow him to be more aggressive. That's really important."

Since signing with Tennessee in 2013, Hubbs has dealt with the pressure of high expectations due to his recruitment. His freshman season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and the volume of those expectations only increased. Tyndall stressed to Hubbs going into the season that the player needed to block all of it out.

"I definitely needed to hear that," Hubbs said in October. "He looked me in the eye and told me straight up, 'Man, just don't worry about what other people say. Be the best Robert Hubbs you can be, and I'm going to be the best Donnie Tyndall I can be. We're going to get through this together and make (you) a better player.' It gave me an extra boost."

With the Vols looking for a new best player, perhaps Hubbs can give Tennessee a similar bump.

"The sky is the limit for Robert, but he's got to continue to work on his game like everybody does," Tyndall said. "He's got to have a great offseason. He really does, and I'll think he'll embrace that and work hard this summer."

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