Josh Richardson laughs when asked about his recruiting ranking and the chatter on Tennessee message boards last summer that he wasn't good enough to compete in the SEC.
"I didn't pay attention to all of that,'' said the freshman shooting guard, who was ranked No. 124 by Rivals.com and first recruited by coach Cuonzo Martin while Martin was still at Missouri State. " My parents always told me that nothing good comes from message boards.
"But I saw ESPN saying I wasn't very polished. THAT gave me a lot of motivation.''
Richardson will have an opportunity to show an ESPN audience just how much he has brushed up on his game when the Vols (8-7, 1-0 SEC) play at No. 20 Mississippi State (13-3, 0-1) tonight (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.).
The 6-foot-6, 186-pound Richardson will be matched against Rodney Hood, the No. 16 player in the 2011 rankings.
The 6-9, 204-pound Hood has the better numbers of the two, averaging 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game to Richardson's 3.2 points, 1.5 rebounds and one assist averages.
But Richardson is anything but intimidated. In fact, it was the fearless flair he showed when matched up against Memphis freshman Adonis Thomas on Jan. 4 that led to Richardson earning a spot in the starting lineup.
"I've seen (Hood) play a lot of AAU basketball, and he's as talented as any young guard in the country,'' Martin said. "But once again, it's not letting those guys get into a rhythm or a comfort zone.''
Defense — not offense — has been ob one for Richardson since the day he signed.
When fans want to know the type of player Martin looks to recruit to Tennessee, they need look no further than the clean-cut, hard-nosed Richardson.
"Josh has done it from day one as far as his approach,'' Martin said. "He has continued to work and compete, and I don't think there's any question he has earned it.''
Richardson wasted no time making the most of his starting position, scoring the Vols' first basket in their 67-56 win over then-No. 13 Florida last Saturday and following up with a 3-pointer to start the second half that kept the Gators two possessions down.
The Richardson that fans see now is a far cry from the shy, tentative 170-pounder that arrived in Knoxville in June and struggled to score in the Pilot Rocky Top summer league.
"I'll be honest, I didn't know how competitive that league was,'' Richardson said with a laugh. "It's gonna be a lot different next summer.''
Richardson's mother, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Alice Richardson, has moved to Knoxville to make sure of as much.
"My mom likes to work out with me at the gym,'' Richardson said. "My suitemates tell me I'm probably the only college basketball player in America who works out with his mom.''
The military background Richardson came from helps explain his disciplined approach on and off the court.
The Vols will need that sort of composure against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State features one of the best point guards in the SEC in Dee Bost along with projected first-round NBA draft pick Arnette Moultrie (6-11, 249) at center. Former Fulton standout Jalen Steele, a sophomore, is also a starter at guard for the Bulldogs.
Martin said the key will be getting off to a good start and staying disciplined running half-court offensive sets.
"You have to be able to grind it out on the road, make it ugly for the home team,'' said Martin, who's looking for his first road win at UT. "At home, it's one or two passes, take a good shot. On the road, it's four or five passes. You've got to make those guys work on defense.
"I think the first 10 minutes of road game you have to set the tone. In the second half, you execute your offense, and you'll be fine.''
Stokes Eligibility: Martin said Wednesday night that freshman forward Jarnell Stokes would receive final eligibility clearance from the SEC in time for tonight's game.
Martin said Monday that the mid-term enrollee from Memphis would be cleared for the game but would likely not play. The delay was caused due to the SEC office being closed Monday for the BCS national championship game.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32