Josh Richardson hesitated.
"There's been some tough players coming through, but, I mean, we just, I haven't — I don't know," the Tennessee junior guard began, rummaging along.
The search for words unearthed an admission of culpability.
"I'll take the blame for that," he conceded.
In their past five games — a couple of wins and a threesome of losses — the Vols have faced the five leading scorers in the SEC.
Each one of them, from Ole Miss's Marshall Henderson, to Alabama's Trevor Releford, to Vanderbilt's Kedren Johnson, to Arkansas's B.J. Young, to Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, met or exceeded his season scoring average.
Collectively, the five averaged 5 more points than their season averages.
Commonly, as UT's designated "stopper," it's been Richardson's duty to defend them.
"I don't feel pressure from it at all, but I know I have to do better at it," Richardson said before practice Friday afternoon.
Following five games of open fire from the SEC's top shooters, Richardson and the Vols will receive a reprieve Sunday. The problem now, though, is that they won't know where the shots are coming from. South Carolina (12-10, 2-7 SEC), today's host in Columbia, doesn't boast a scorer averaging more than 10.6 points, but does offer five scoring at least 8.2 points.
There is no star. Bruce Ellington, a 5-foot-9 point guard who spent the first half the season divvying up his time between basketball and as a standout wide receiver for Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks, is the closest thing. The renaissance man averages 10.4 points per game in league play.
"Bruce Ellington is the guy that makes them go," said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, whose team brings an 11-10 overall record and a 3-6 league mark into Sunday's meeting (TV: FSTN, 1 p.m.).
Given their 8-inch height differential, Richardson won't begin the day assigned on Ellington. He'll likely land on one of South Carolina's wings, either Brian Richardson (8.2 ppg) or Brenton Williams (10.3 ppg).
The Gamecocks' top scorer comes in the form of 6-5 power forward Michael Carrera. The freshman from Venezuela averages 10.6 points and 6.9 rebounds in SEC play. The job of keeping him from surpassing his season average and bucking UT's recent trend falls to forwards Jarnell Stokes and Kenny Hall.
Most recently, Georgia's Caldwell-Pope, a 6-5 life raft with a jump shot, scored eight of his game-high 24 points in the final five minutes of a win over the Vols on Wednesday.
Caldwell-Pope entered the night averaging 15.4 point per game.
He left averaging 17.8.
Martin said Friday that shutting down a team's best player needs to be, "Who we are as a program."
"As an individual player, you either have it in you to get stops or you don't," he added later. "That's the bottom line. It's taking pride in what you do."
Asked about Richardson, Martin said, "He accepts those challenges and he's putting forth a great effort, but you've just got to get it done."
Golden Update: Looking to return from a strained right hamstring, Tennessee point guard Trae Golden participated in a full practice Saturday, according to Martin.
Golden, having missed back-to-back games, should be "good to go" against the Gamecocks, Martin told the News Sentinel in a text message.
Prior to the injury, Golden was averaging 10.0 points and 3.9 assists per game.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn