The Tennessee team that plays Oakland tonight at 9 o'clock in Rochester, Mich., appears to be a lot better than most observers expected. One reason is a freshman who appears to be a lot better than most observers expected.
Josh Richardson signed with the Vols last spring after averaging 16.5 points per game as a senior at Santa Fe High School in Edmond, Okla. Rated a mere 2-star prospect by Scout.com, his greatest attribute was the fact he stands 6-feet-6 and can play any position except center.
First-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin saw attributes he liked in the young man, however, and he continues seeing those attributes five games into Richardson's college career.
"Josh is a very intelligent young man," Martin said recently. "He has a great feel for the game."
Apparently so. Richardson is averaging 4.8 points and 19.0 minutes per game. He is hitting 47.1 percent (8 of 17) from the field and 33.3 percent (3 of 9) from 3. The 3-point figure is surprising in view of the fact he rarely shot from long range in high school and made just 1 of 11 from beyond the arc in the Rocky Top League last summer.
"I've made a lot of progress in my 3-point shooting," he said recently. "I wasn't really known as a 3-point shooter coming out of high school but now I can knock down the open 3 consistently, and I think that's probably the biggest improvement."
Not surprisingly, that improvement can be traced to hard work.
"I try to get extra shots up all the time, and it's paying off," he said. "I usually shoot 10 from each spot (left corner, left wing, key, right wing, right corner) three times around the horn. That's about 200 to 300 shots."
Asked how many times he performs this workout in an average week, he paused thoughtfully, then replied: "A lot."
Richardson hit his first 3-pointer in Game 2 versus Louisiana Monroe and wound up playing exceptionally well. He made 4 of 7 field-goal tries and 2 of 2 free throws, finishing with 11 points, 2 assists and 2 steals in 18 ultra-productive minutes. He also hit his first 3-pointer in Game 4 versus Memphis, finishing 2 of 4 from behind the arc with 8 points, an assist, a block and 2 steals in a season-high 31 minutes. Hitting a 3 right out of the chute seems to invigorate him.
"Hitting shots like that always give people a lift," he said. "I knew we had to bring energy, so I was trying to bring that to the team. I saw I was open, I shot it, I made it. That just hyped me up even more."
Still, Richardson's greatest asset is his defensive ability. Tied for the team lead in blocked shots with five, he limited Memphis' Will Barton to eight second-half points after Barton burned the Vols for 17 in the first half. Richardson has used his lanky frame and long arms to great advantage, especially since playing a ragged first half defensively versus Louisiana Monroe.
"I just started thinking a lot about what I was supposed to be doing," he recalled, "and stopped running around like a crazy man."
Like most freshmen, Richardson has occasional mental lapses caused by nerves. He's determined to correct that problem.
"The next step for me is mental — just staying in the game mentally," he said. "I feel like I zone out every now and then. That's a freshman mistake, I guess, but I probably need to make some progress in that."
NOTES: Tennessee will be facing one of the NCAA's top guard tandems tonight. Oakland senior Reggie Hamilton (5-11, 176 pounds) averages 17.8 points per game and is rated the No. 4 point guard in college hoops by Lindy's. He is ranked No. 96 among all college players by CBSsports.com. Backcourt mate Travis Bader (6-3, 179 pounds) is rated one of the NCAA's top 3-point shooters by ESPN's Jay Bilas.... Vol center Kenny Hall (6-8, 222 pounds) may have his hands full tonight with Oakland's Corey Petros. The 6-foot-10, 235-pounder is averaging 10.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.... Oakland prevailed 89-82 last Dec. 14 in Knoxville, shocking a Vol team that came in 7-0 and ranked No. 7 nationally.... Each team brings a 3-2 record into tonight's game. Oakland lost 74-57 at Alabama and 91-68 at Arkansas to open the season but has won three in a row since, including a 76-74 win at Houston on Nov. 22.... The game will be televised by ESPNU.