KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Josh Richardson didn't know what to expect when he first arrived at Tennessee.
Now the senior guard is winding up his college career as one of the Southeastern Conference's most indispensable players. Richardson plays the final scheduled home game of his college career Saturday when the Volunteers (15-4, 7-10) face South Carolina (14-15, 5-12).
"Stepping on campus, I just wanted to play," Richardson said. "I just wanted to get on the court. My expectations just kind of grew every year. It wasn't like I had a four-year plan mapped out when I stepped on campus."
Although Richardson isn't the SEC's best player or top pro prospect, perhaps nobody in the conference means more to his team. The 6-foot-6 guard has scored or assisted on nearly 40 percent of Tennessee's points this season. Richardson's ability to adapt to a new coach and a new role has helped Tennessee stay afloat in the SEC during a season of transition.
After Tennessee reached the NCAA tournament regional semifinals last season, former Vols coach Cuonzo Martin left to take over California's program. The switch from Martin to new coach Donnie Tyndall was the biggest change in a tumultuous offseason that also included multiple transfers and four recruits getting releases from their letters of intent and signing elsewhere.
Richardson stuck around, making him the lone returning player who averaged more than five points per game for Tennessee's Sweet 16 team. Richardson, the son of a retired firefighter and a retired Air Force reserves lieutenant colonel, had the maturity to deal with all this change without allowing it to interfere with his drive or hinder his focus.
"I thought about leaving for maybe a week or two, but I like it here too much," Richardson said. "I wanted to take the challenge to lead this team to be as good we possibly could."
That meant adjusting to a different coach with a different type of personality, as Tyndall is more demonstrative and outspoken than Martin. It also meant adapting to a new position.
Darius Thompson's transfer to Virginia had left Tennessee without a proven point guard on scholarship. Richardson, a natural wing who hadn't played the point since his senior year in high school, shifted back to that position this season due to Tennessee's lack of alternatives.
Richardson has responded by ranking sixth in the SEC in scoring (15.7) and 12th in assists per game (3.6). Richardson is the only SEC player to rank in the top 15 in both categories.
"He embraced the position as a senior that he has never really played (much) before and welcomed it with open arms," Tyndall said. "A reason our team has had the success we have had is in large part because of him accepting that role and embracing that role."
Richardson, a psychology major graduating this year, also has thrived in the leadership role that was thrust upon Tennessee's most experienced player. Richardson built on the confidence he had gained by averaging 19.3 points per game in last season's NCAA tournament.
Always a strong defender, Richardson emerged as Tennessee's top offensive threat. Auburn's KT Harrell is the only SEC player who has scored a higher percentage of his team's points.
While another NCAA bid won't come unless Tennessee wins next week's SEC tournament, the Vols are above .500 after being predicted by SEC media to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the conference. That likely wouldn't have been possible without Richardson's leadership.
"I think I've done a good job of just staying aggressive all year and leading my team to as many wins as we can," Richardson said. "As a team I think we've definitely overachieved... but we still have things to do."
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