The soft-spoken, piano-playing freshman showcased his talent range Saturday afternoon, making his first college start a memorable one as he spearheaded a rugged defensive effort that helped Tennessee notch a 67-56 upset of No. 13 Florida.
"Off the court, everybody always tells me I'm kind of quiet," he said earlier today. "I guess I turn into a different person on the court. I've always played physical like that, so it wasn't anything different here."
With Tennessee coming off a listless performance in last Wednesday's 18-point loss at Memphis, Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin inserted Richardson into Saturday's lineup thinking he might provide a spark. Instead, the rookie provided two.
Opening at shooting guard in place of offensive-minded Jordan McRae, Richardson hoped to throttle a Gator squad that came in ranked fifth nationally in scoring at 85.4 points per game. He succeeded, helping limit Florida to just 7 baskets in its first 20 field-goal attempts (35 percent) as the Vols forged a 20-17 lead that they eventually parlayed into a 33-29 halftime advantage.
Richardson was at it again to start the second half, helping hold Florida to 14 points in 11 minutes as the lead swelled to 58-43.
As an added bonus, he provided an offensive lift at the start of each half. He scored on a 6-footer from the lane for Tennessee's first bucket of the game, then drained a 3-pointer to provide the Vols' first points of the second half.
"He got us going in the first and second half," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "He hit both shots, and that was huge for us, man. He stepped up for us big."
Still, Richardson's greatest contribution was on the defensive end of the floor. He helped limit Florida's dynamic backcourt trio of Kenny Boynton (4 for 12), Erving Walker (3 for 8) and Bradley Beal (4 for 12) to a combined 11 for 32 from the field and a mere 30 points.
Martin conceded during his Monday news conference that "They can reel off 12 quick points on you in transition, shooting 3s and attacking the rim. I thought we did a really good job of slowing those guys down and making 'em work for catches. It was probably our best effort all season of switching on ball screens and making adjustments."
Considerable credit for that goes to Richardson, whose length, athleticism and determination have enabled him to become an exceptional backcourt defender. After 14 games as a reserve, he got to showcase his defensive skills at the start of Game 15. He didn't waste the opportunity.
"Watching from the bench, I noticed that we always had trouble starting out on defense," he recalled, "so I figured I could bring that to the lineup."
Because Tennessee wasn't showing the desired intensity on defense at the beginning of games, Martin decided last Thursday to give Richardson a shot at starting.
"I thought he earned it," the head man said. "This is not a situation to get somebody else (McRae) motivated to play. He (Richardson) has earned his way, and it's his job to lose."
Richardson conceded he was "surprised at first" when he learned he would start, adding: "But, after it settled in, I was excited. I just had to be a lot more focused to start the game out well."
Asked if he had been nervous going into his starting debut, he replied: "I figured I would be but I was fine."
Richardson has been Tennessee's most pleasant surprise to date. Rated a mere 2-star recruit by Scout.com following his senior year at Santa Fe High in Edmond, Okla., his signing with the Vols last spring was not exactly greeted with enthusiasm on Big Orange message boards. He didn't let that discourage him, however.
"I didn't really pay attention to all of that," he said. "My parents always told me that nothing really good comes out of message boards. But I saw on ESPN that I wasn't very polished or whatever, and that gave me a lot of motivation."
That motivation was evident Saturday, when the guy who plays classical music left a bunch of Gators singing the blues.
STOKES UPDATE: Five-star signee Jarnell Stokes practiced with the Vols for the first time today and has been cleared to play by both the NCAA and the SEC office. Martin says the mid-term enrollee from Memphis is unlikely to play this week, however, because the staff isn't convinced he is physically ready. Stokes hasn't played in an organized game since competing in an AAU tournament last summer. Conversely, adapting mentally may not take long at all. A couple of players already have been working with Stokes on Tennessee's terminology, Martin said, adding that he plans to "simplify things for him." In addition, the coach said the Vols ran only four set plays against Florida, adding: "We run 'em if we need 'em but we'll put him in situations where he doesn't have to remember a lot of plays early."