COLUMBIA — One of the first things Brian Richardson discussed with his new coach was confidence, and how it withered for Richardson near the end of last season. The memories of that frustrating experience were fresh for Richardson when he met with Frank Martin last spring after South Carolina hired Martin to replace Darrin Horn as its men’s basketball coach.
Richardson, a junior guard, said that what happened to him during the disastrous home stretch of USC’s 2011-12 season was “pretty simple.”
“I just wasn’t playing and just lost confidence and stopped working hard,” he said. “I just stopped working hard on my game.”
Last season was a miserable time to be around USC basketball. The Gamecocks went 10-21 and lost 13 of their final 15 games. After February rolled around, Richardson played in just seven of the final 11 games. He totaled 44 minutes and 13 points in those seven games.
Richardson’s final season statistics — two starts, 3.2 points per game, 12.3 minutes — were a sharp drop from his freshman year, when he started 24 games and averaged 5.9 points in 19.4 minutes.
Richardson willingly accepts some of the blame for his sluggish finish. But while he essentially mailed in his season, he was frustrated with having his role so narrowly defined as a perimeter shooter. He made 33.6 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman, but just 23.3 last season (14 of 60).
“I did feel like I was kind of pigeonholed,” he said. “I felt like I was just sitting, just waiting for the ball or waiting for somebody to penetrate and kick it out to me, to shoot the ball. I feel like I’m doing a lot more this year than I did last year.”
Richardson is averaging 8.5 points and 19.8 minutes, mostly as a reserve, while shooting 40.8 percent on 3s (29 of 71). Considering how little he contributed last season, he is one of the biggest surprises of USC’s season, which peaked with Saturday’s 75-54 win over Arkansas. Richardson on Saturday shot 8 of 13, 3 of 5 on 3s, and led USC with 20 points, tying a career high set earlier this month in a loss at Mississippi State.
While Saturday’s blowout and Richardson’s season have been eye openers, USC would stun everybody tonight if it won at fourth-ranked Florida. Since the Gamecocks beat No. 1 Kentucky in January 2010, they are 1-15 against ranked teams, with a nine-game losing streak. Since the start of the 2006-07 season, USC is 4-32 against ranked opponents.
Just as the Arkansas win doesn’t necessarily mean Martin’s first season will finish with a flourish, Martin is still learning how to maintain Richardson’s confidence at a time when it was most fragile last year. The most important thing Martin wanted to see from Richardson this season? Versatility. His jump shot might not fall every night, but he could contribute by driving to the basket and drawing fouls, or by using his 6-4 length to disrupt on defense.
“My battle with him the whole time has been to find a way to get him to feel good about himself,” Martin said. “What I’ve tried to do with him is make him understand that he can’t simplify who he is to just shooting the basketball. I think he’s understanding that.”
Richardson’s 20 points in USC’s Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi State capped a six-game run in which he averaged 15 points. Then he scored zero, zero, seven and zero points in the next four games while playing 14, two, 20 and three minutes.
Richardson weathered the slump by remembering how his parents, Tammy and Maurice Richardson, told him often last season that he couldn’t let his minutes affect his outlook. “Just keep working hard and everything will take care of itself,” he recalled them telling him.
Now, he takes a basic approach to buoying his confidence: “I try not to think about last year,” he said. “I know around this time last year, I was down.”
Instead, he applies himself to the parts of his game that Martin is determined to reveal this year.
“I knew I could defend,” Richardson said. “I just have to believe that I can defend. I give a lot of problems to shorter guards. I can use my length over shorter guards or faster guards. I try to use that to my advantage, and just give energy off that if I’m having a bad shooting night.”