Vols need Josh to beat Missouri

InsideTennessee takes you inside Tennessee basketball better than anyone else. Check out this preview of Saturday's game at Missouri focusing on the importance of keeping one key Vol out of foul trouble:

Lightly bumping into Tennessee’s Josh Richardson on an attempted drive to the basket Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, one Arkansas player violently snapped back his head as if he’d taken an uppercut to the chin.

It was bad acting but good strategy. Richardson accounts for 25.4 percent of his team’s points, leading the SEC in that category. In addition to points (16.4 per game), he tops the Vols in assists (52) and steals (34). Clearly, getting him into foul trouble and out of the lineup is Job One for opponents. No doubt, that will be the top item on Missouri’s to-do list when the Tigers host the Vols Saturday evening in Columbia.

Knowing how important he is to Tennessee’s shaky offense, Richardson realizes he must play with a blend of aggression and caution each time he takes the court.

“I just know I have to play a lot more careful because the game changes so much when I come out,” he told InsideTennessee. “It’s tougher to get the ball up the court (without him on the floor), so I like to be on the court to relieve pressure on the other guys and be the guy to bring it up every time.”

Richardson might qualify as the SEC’s Most Valuable Player based solely on where his team would be without him. Tennessee’s league opener at Mississippi State is a perfect example. After guiding the Vols to a 12-2 lead, he went to the bench with two fouls. Tennessee’s offense stalled, enabling Mississippi State to pull within 12-7, so Donnie Tyndall hastily returned his star player to the floor.

Richardson lasted just six minutes before being whistled for his third foul, returning to the bench with Tennessee leading 12-10. Mississippi State promptly exploited his absence by outscoring the Vols 7-2 to take a 17-14 lead. Fortunately for Tennessee, Richardson played the second half without picking up another foul and led the Vols to a 14-point road win. Knocked off his game, however, he made just 3 of 13 shots and finished with 11 points, five below his season’s average.

Following the same game plan, 19th-ranked Arkansas pressured Richardson from the opening tip Tuesday night. He was whistled for his second foul with 11:11 left in the half and Tennessee up 16-14. Tyndall gave him a chance to stay on the floor this time but assistant coach Al Pinkins gave him a lecture first.

“Coach Pinkins just told me I had to play super-smart for the rest of the half,” Richardson recalled. “I definitely didn’t reach anymore. I was trying to avoid a lot of contact. I was just trying to play smart for my team.”

Tyndall’s gamble paid dividends. With Tennessee leading 22-18, Richardson produced the Vols' next seven points – hitting a 3 from the left wing, scoring on a nifty drive, then converting his own steal into a transition layup to maintain the four-point lead (29-25). Figuring he had pushed his luck far enough, the head man removed Richardson with 3:18 left in the half.

“I usually let guys play until they get three (fouls),” Tyndall explained, “but he is so important in the flow of the game…. We wanted to survive and get him to the locker room with just two fouls. Fortunately, our team still had the lead (33-31) going into the half.”

Richardson was at his aggressive best to start the second half, opening it with a driving left-handed layup, then adding a dunk and an acrobatic layup off a nifty drive. Those six points sparked a 10-2 spurt that widened the lead to 43-33. By the time he picked up his third foul Tennessee led 54-43 with 6:19 to play in the game.

Discounting the 3:18 he was on the bench at the end of the first half Richardson played nearly 22 minutes between his second foul and his third. He finished with 20 points and the Vols finished with a 74-69 win.

“In the second half,” Tyndall said, “he played smart and avoided foul trouble."

That’s tougher than it sounds. Many times a player worried about fouling will become tentative and stop guarding. Richardson avoided that trap against Arkansas.

“Oh, yeah. Definitely,” he said. “I just can’t be as aggressive as I want to be all the time. I kind of like to reach a lot.”

At 6-feet-6 and 200 pounds, Richardson’s long arms and quick hands can be a tremendous asset in the Vols’ full-court press and halfcourt zone defenses. The problem is, those attributes are wasted when he’s sitting on the bench in foul trouble.

Like everyone else on Tennessee’s schedule, Missouri will try to get Richardson in early foul trouble. If the Tigers succeed, the Vols’ chances of picking up a second SEC road win will plummet. As talented as he is, he can’t contribute from the sidelines.

GAME NOTES: First-team junior college All-America guard Kevin Punter committed to Missouri last winter before changing his mind and signing with the Vols. He was Donnie Tyndall’s second UT signee, following Jabari McGhee…. Punter has made just 1 of his last 15 field-goal tries, going 0 for 7 against Alabama last Saturday and 1 for 8 against Arkansas. Still, he says his confidence is “through the roof,” adding that “a lot of the shots are in and out. That’s why I’m not losing my mind and going crazy.” … First-year Missouri head man Kim Anderson guided Central Missouri to the Div. II national title last March. He is a Missouri graduate (Class of ’77)…. The 2014-15 Tigers are 7-9 overall, 1-2 in SEC play. They beat LSU in their league opener before losing road games at Auburn and Kentucky…. Tennessee brings a 10-5 record into the game that includes a 2-1 league mark…. Johnathan Williams III, a 6-foot-9 sophomore from Memphis, leads Missouri in both scoring (13.7 points per game) and rebounding (7.1 per game). Tennessee got him to visit but could not convince him to sign two years ago…. Tennessee has struggled defending the 3-point basket this season, and Mizzou has two long-range weapons. Six-foot-5 freshman Namon Wright is hitting 45.0 percent from 3 and senior Keith Shamburger drained five 3s in the loss at Auburn…. Missouri leads the series with Tennessee 5-4 and is 3-0 in Columbia…. Tennessee won last year’s meeting in Knoxville 72-45…. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. Central (6 p.m. Eastern) with TV coverage provided by the SEC Network.

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