Vols brace for life after Josh

InsideTennessee is your No. 1 source for all things Orange. Check out this in-depth article on how the Basketball Vols hope to offset the absence of captain Josh Richardson in 2015-16:

Tennessee wasn’t a one-man team in 2014-15 but the Basketball Vols probably came as close as anyone in major-college basketball.

Josh Richardson led the team in points (16.0 per game), assists (115) and steals (67), finished second in blocks (16) and third in rebounds (4.5 per game). The 6-foot-6 senior posted the team’s best free-throw percentage (79.8) and finished a close second in field-goal percentage (46.1) and 3-point percentage (35.9).

Now that he’s out of eligibility, how will the Vols replace all of that production?

“I think it’s got to be a team effort that every guy strives to make,” Richardson told InsideTennessee. “They’re not going to have me to fall back on, like we had Jordy (Jordan McRae) to fall back on last year (2013-14). I had to step my game up this year, so there’s going to have to be a guy next year step his game up.”

The leading candidates to replace Richardson’s scoring are 6-foot-6 Robert Hubbs (7.2 points per game) and 6-foot-5 Devon Baulkman (4.7 ppg). Though wildly inconsistent, both showed flashes of offensive firepower in March that suggest they could be double-digit scorers in 2015-16.

“We just have to step up,” Hubbs said. “I’m a junior next year, so I’ll have to step up. Other guys, too. We’ll just have to play hard.”

Though plagued by shoulder problems most of the 2014-15 season, Baulkman still led the Vols in 3-point percentage (38.2) and shot an impressive 79.5 percent from the foul line. Relatively pain free in March, he scored 30 points in Tennessee’s last four games.

Hubbs also strung together some strong performances in March – scoring 12 points at LSU, 14 against South Carolina and 16 against Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament. He hit 15 of 32 field-goal tries during that stretch, including 50 percent (7 of 14) from 3-point range.

“I was just playing with confidence, staying focused, staying aggressive and helping my teammates out,” he said, adding that his late-season surge “definitely helps” his outlook for next season.

Asked if he might be the guy to fill Richardson’s shoes next winter, Hubbs shrugged and replied, “It’ll be a group effort. We’re all going to step up and contribute at both ends of the floor.”

That “all” includes himself, Baulkman, 6-foot-4 rising senior Kevin Punter, 6-foot-2 rising sophomore Detrick Mostella and 6-foot-4 November signee Shembari Phillips. Punter averaged 10.3 points per game as the No. 1 shooting guard but seems capable of being a 15-points-per-game scorer. He shot 41.9 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from behind the arc during the just-ended season.

Mostella has Jordan McRae-type explosiveness but suffered through a McRae-type freshman year. He shot just 27.6 percent from the field and averaged a mere 3.4 points per game. Phillips is a three-star recruit with a solid all-around game.

Replacing Richardson’s scoring will be easy compared to replacing his other contributions. Though playing out of position at point guard, he did a solid job as the primary ball-handler. Punter filled in at the point on occasion but is not a long-term answer. Redshirt freshman Braxton Bonds is a capable ball-handler but needs a better jump shot. Bottom line: Tennessee needs to sign a plug-and-play point guard between now and the 2015-16 opener.

(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

Tennessee will miss Richardson’s backboard work, as well. To average 4.5 rebounds per game while playing point guard is impressive. By comparison, Hubbs averaged just 2.9 per game, Baulkman 2.3, Punter 2.1 and Mostella 0.9.

Best known for his defensive prowess, Richardson’s skill in this area goes far beyond his steal and blocked-shot totals. He could guard everyone from point guards to power forwards, winning far more battles than he lost. Hubbs, Baulkman, Punter and Mostella are not in his league defensively.

Richardson may be lost but all is not lost. Tennessee returns the rest of its starting lineup for 2015 – 6-foot-8 rising sophomore Willie Carmichael at center, 6-foot-5 rising senior Armani Moore (10.3 points per game) at power forward, Hubbs at small forward and Punter at shooting guard.

Depth on the inside should be deeper, thanks to the return of 6-foot-10 rising sophomore Tariq Owens, 6-foot-8 rising senior Derek Reese and 6-foot-8 rising sophomore Jabari McGhee, who missed all but eight games of 2014-15 due to foot surgery. Still, a true “big” in the 6-foot-10, 240-pound range would be a great spring addition.

November signee Admiral Schofield, a 6-foot-6, 220-pounder, can provide depth at both forward spots. Phillips should contend with Baulkman and Mostella for playing time on the wing, and Bonds is the heir-apparent at point guard, pending a significant spring signing.

Josh Richardson will be missed but his competitive spirit may impact the program for years to come. A great leader, he rallied the 2014-15 Vols from seemingly hopeless situations time after time, producing several unlikely come-from-behind victories. Tennessee’s returning players plan to carry on that legacy.

“We never quit,” Hubbs said. “We’re going to play hard to the end. The future is bright. That’s all I can say.”

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