If Tennessee’s basketball team is going to survive, or better still, thrive, without senior forward Jeronne Maymon, other players are going to have to step forward. Two of them did that on Friday night in the Vols’ win over Western Carolina.
One of them, sophomore wing Josh Richardson, got a none-too-subtle reminder text from Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin the day of the game. “Stay aggressive,” Martin wrote. “Be a threat.”
Richardson has gotten so caught up with his role of being the Vols’ primary defender on the opposition’s top perimeter scoring threat that he had forgotten to be a scoring threat himself. He’s more than capable of using his length and athleticism to get to the rim, or offensive rebound and cash in on garbage baskets. His jump shot is still a work in progress, but he’s increased his range from a year ago.
There’s no reason he can’t become a double-figure scorer.
Martin’s text was just a reminder, but he had to follow it up at halftime after Richardson didn’t score a field goal in the first 20 minutes. Richardson proceeded to make 5 of 5 shots from the field, all of them going toward the basket, and he finished with 12 points and five rebounds.
“Earlier in the season, I would have probably stopped attacking,” Richardson said. “I just told myself I would keep going to the rim in the second half, and it came.”
Tennessee’s overall team aggressiveness has come as a result of two ESPN-televised low-scoring losses at Georgetown and Virginia. Martin and his staff worked overtime to fix the productivity leaks in their offense.
"I think the two things after the Georgetown and Virginia games—I don't want to talk about those games for a long time—but after those games, we spent a long time offensively getting our rhythm in transition, attacking the wings and scoring the ball,” Martin said. “But also drive and penetrate and get to the lanes. That's everybody. Even Skylar McBee drove a couple of times (against Western Carolina). Getting in the lane, forcing officials to make calls. Make that defense go out and find the bodies and give it to shooters."
“I think the biggest key for Josh is to stay aggressive and to get in attack mode and cut, and cut hard and not settle for 3-point shots,” Martin said. “When you have a 3-point shot and you have the ball and the shot clock is running down in that situation, you take it, but you don't make up your mind that you're going to shoot a 3-pointer. You have to stay aggressive and get to that lane."
That goes double for Richardson, who isn’t a pure jump shooter and has to slash to be effective. Martin’s goal is to put five effective scorers on the floor at all times to help lessen the defensive pressure on sophomore post man Jarnell Stokes, who has seen double- and even triple-teaming this season without the massive Maymon around to draw away coverage.
It’ll also help the cause of Richardson can find the stamina to score and defend. Martin wasn’t happy that Richardson’s man, Western Carolina guard Trey Sumler, scored 23 points.
"He has to be a defensive stopper,” Martin said. “Right now he's a solid defender; he's not a stopper. He has to be a shut-down defender. We can count on him—for any perimeter guy—we know Josh has his job. Offensively, he has to continue to get better. Making moves off the bounce and getting to the basket more left and right. Or just pull up and make the plays."
You can’t keep a good man down: The other player to step up against the scrappy Catamounts was senior forward Kenny Hall, who missed the Vols’ game against Presbyterian on Tuesday night after tweaking a hamstring. Hall could have played, but the decision was made to rest him.
The night off did Hall some good. He responded with nine points and a career-high 13 rebounds.
“If felt good to be out there,” Hall said. “I always hate sitting out during games.”
New backup PG?: Martin is still seeking a backup point guard to give junior Trae Golden some rest. Freshman Armani Moore began the season in that role but quickly played himself out of it. Walk-on Brandon Lopez has seen a few minutes at the point. But against Western Carolina, the job fell to junior Jordan McRae, who’s known as a scorer. Apparently he has other skills as well.
McRae scored a team-high 14 points, but he also handed out three assists. Martin will no doubt discuss McRae’s five turnovers, but two steals and a blocked shot essentially erased two of those miscues.
"Not at all. I think Jordan McRae can (play the point) depending on the situation,” Martin said. “I played on a team where we didn't have a true point, but we've got guys that are scoring points and I think that's just as vital. Remember, some people say Trae Golden is not a point guard. He can score the ball."
Reese returns: Freshman forward Derek Reese was in uniform on Friday night and is getting closer to seeing some action after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in August. That surgery has kept other college basketball players out for six months, but apparently Reese is a fast healer.
Before Reese was injured, he impressed the Tennessee coaches with his court savvy, so much so that they envisioned a significant role for him.
“With Derek Reese getting into the fold, that's a guy that's now a legitimate four man for us,” Martin said. “Now you have a guy that can go in for Kenny Hall that understands that position and can give you a different dynamic. He's a big guy that can go off the bounce and make shots. He plays on the perimeter at 6-foot-8 and gives you more shooting on the wings of your offense."