Dougherty: Malachi Richardson doesn’t think you can guard him, and he’s probably right

first_imgCHICAGO — There was a stretch on Sunday evening that lasted way longer than Virginia would have liked, that Malachi Richardson was playing a totally different game than the nine other players on the court.A game unfolding in the Trenton Catholic (New Jersey) High School gym, where he’s the McDonald’s All-American and everyone else is not. A game unfolding in his head, where each of his movements is so free and unrestricted that the five defenders may as well lay down in his path. A game unfolding exactly how he wanted it to, down to the step. The dribble. The …Swish.All the Cavaliers could do was watch as he poured in 21 second-half points to end their season one game shy of the Final Four. When Richardson enters his zone, that I’m-going-to-score-whenever-and-however-I-want zone, watch is all any team can do these days.“No, I don’t think so,” Richardson said when asked if he thinks any player can guard him. “That’s just me being confident. Once I got it going I was just hot and I was going.”AdvertisementThis is placeholder textSyracuse (23-13, 9-9 Atlantic Coast) is the only-ever 10 seed to advance to the Final Four, and inevitable question marks still follow it from game to game. How much will the Orange get out of Dajuan Coleman? Tyler Roberson? Will the zone effectively cover all its cracks? Will Trevor Cooney hit early, often or at all? And Richardson, the mercurial freshman with that attention-grabbing mane, can be lumped in with the uncertainties. He can go cold. He can be lethargic. He can fall asleep on defense and draw the ire of Jim Boeheim’s red-faced frustration.But Richardson also gives SU two things it can count on. He almost always gets better as games go on, and if he slinks into that unstoppable mode — like he did against top-seeded Virginia on Sunday and seventh-seeded Dayton in the Round of 64 — the Orange can beat any team left in the Tournament.Yes, even top-seeded North Carolina (32-6, 14-4) in Houston’s NRG Stadium at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday. And if you want to look ahead, even Villanova or Oklahoma, too.“He’s just a player, Malachi Richardson is just a player,” Cooney said after Syracuse beat the Cavaliers. “We’re so confident in him, in everything he does. When he plays like that we’re very hard to beat.”Richardson’s precocious offensive ability can be broken down into three parts: his size and speed, his sharp recognition and the pure rhythm that he plays with.The size and speed — 6-foot-6, 205 pounds and a lightning-quick first step — is what flustered Virginia first. Devon Hall, giving up an inch to Richardson, had to respect his driving ability and Richardson proceeded to hit two 3s. The second came when Hall oversold on two quick dribbles toward the rim, and Richardson stepped back and canned the shot while falling away from the basket.When Tony Bennett switched Malcolm Brogdon onto Richardson, his recognition shined. Brogdon, a consensus top defender in the country, tried to tightly chase Richardson around an off-ball screen. Richardson countered by tightly curling it, and earned a layup that gave Syracuse the lead it never lost.A minute later, Brogdon gave him some breathing room on the perimeter and he pulled up off the dribble for a deep 3. Then Brodgon pressed back up and Richardson whizzed by him before gathering his own miss, duping Mike Tobey with a deft pass fake and laying one in uncontested.If the All-American Brodgon couldn’t keep him from a crunch-time scoring spree, it’s hard to imagine any player left in the NCAA Tournament can. Richardson relayed that, sprinting toward the Syracuse fan section yelling “They can’t guard me!” He added a colorful word here and a colorful word there. Yet it wasn’t just for show — he was spelling out Virginia’s fate while putting future takers on notice.“He has a hesitation to his game that makes you freeze a little bit, and he can shoot it from range and he can get to the rim,” said Brogdon, in a rare instance in which he described a player he couldn’t lock down. “… With guys like that, you let them get their confidence, you have to make them uncomfortable.”But should Richardson find that groove, the rhythm he plays with makes it hard to get him out of it.He’s constantly bobbing his head when walking on or around the court, as if a pair of invisible headphones are permanently draped over his tall hair. His high steps into the lane seem to follow a syncopated beat, which allows him to watch the defense’s rotation before slipping into small openings. Before he rises up for catch-and-shoot jumpers, he’ll often shimmy his shoulders to freeze the defender and get a clear look at the rim.Richardson listens to music, actual music, before every practice and game. Future, Drake and other artists provide the soundtrack to his life, blaring into his ears on high volume. It’s how he stays free of distractions and focused on the voice in his head.The one telling him no player can guard him. The one telling him the truth.Jesse Dougherty is a Senior Staff Writer at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at jcdoug01@syr.edu or @dougherty_jesse. Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on March 29, 2016 at 11:01 pmlast_img

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