NEW ORLEANS — Every time he suits up, whether it’s for practice or a game, Chris Richard makes it a point to absorb everything and file it in an already close to full memory bank. Four years at the University of Florida have passed too quickly and now there is a sense of urgency. Each game, each practice could be his last so he tries to squeeze everything he can out of each moment.
At most, Richard has five more games remaining in his career as a Gator. The choice is one loss that ends it all — a most unacceptable proposition — or five more wins. Obviously, he will take the five wins. He will have a chance to get one more Sunday afternoon when the Gators (30-5) take on Purdue (22-11) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at New Orleans Arena (2:20 EDT, CBS TV).
Five more wins and Chris Richard will end his college basketball career with back to back NCAA titles which puts him in elite company. Not many players in the history of college basketball have one championship ring, much less two. It’s an even more select group that has won consecutive championships.
Winning one more championship is the only motivation Richard needs. He and fellow senior Lee Humphrey have already played in more winning games than any players in Florida history (107). They’ve played in the last four Southeastern Conference Tournament championship games and they’ve won the tournament the last three years. The Gators also added a regular season SEC championship this year so it is a legacy of winning that Richard will leave when his career ends far quicker than he could have imagined when he signed with Florida four years ago out of Lakeland Kathleen.
“It’s gone by like a flash, almost a blink,” said Richard, who scored a career-high 17 points Friday night in Florida’s 112-69 win over Jackson State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Ten of those points came in the first half when Florida was struggling to get out of the blocks and needed a lift.
Once in the game, Richard went about his business with typical efficiency. He hit eight of his nine shots. In his last ten games, he’s 35-46 from the field (76.8 percent) and for the season he is hitting 67.2 percent of his shots. If he had enough shot attempts (411 for his career; 500 required) he would be Florida’s all-time leader in shooting percentage (66.2 percent).
His career scoring (4.8 per game) and rebounding (3.1) averages are deceptive. What he brings to the Gators off the bench can’t be defined by numbers alone. Richard is 6-9, 260, and all muscle. He uses that size to set devastating picks and because he blocks out so well, he creates space for Florida’s other rebounders.
His efforts aren’t lost on teammates.
“He’s a monster,” says Joakim Noah, Florida’s charismatic 6-11 starter at power forward. “He’s a great player and he would start for almost every team we’ve played.”
Richard, who was the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year, also brings plenty to every Florida practice. He’s the physical inside presence that makes it so tough for Noah and Al Horford in practice that the games actually seem easier.
“He used to beat me up in practice every day,” said Noah at a recent Florida media day. “I had to get stronger and I had to get better just so I could compete against him in practice.”
Back in the summer, Richard, Horford and Noah were at the Nike Camp in Indianapolis where they were counselors to the nation’s best high school basketball players. In the evenings, after the high school kids played, the college guys went at it. It was strength against strength when Richard went head to head with LSU’s wide load, Glen Davis, a 6-9, 300-pounder.
“He was with us at the Nike camp and he went up against Big Baby and it was like two heavyweights going at it,” Horford recalled. “When it was over, Big Baby comes over and says, ‘you mean you’ve got to go up against him every day? I wouldn’t want to do that.’
“He [Chris] is a big part of our success. He makes us play harder and better in practice and when he comes off the bench he’s like instant offense.”
When the Gators practice Richard takes on the dimension of wise veteran showing the ropes to the young star in waiting. Richard spends a lot of time with 6-10 freshman Marreese Speights, who is an explosive scorer and rebounder in the low post. When they’re on the sideline together, Richard is always giving Speights pointers. When they go head to head, he makes Speights tougher because he doesn’t hesitate to push the young guy around.
“I never went against anybody that played me that physical before,” said Speights recently. “It’s like that every day at practice. You know what’s going to happen. He comes at you real hard and he makes you work. You go against him every day, you’re gonna improve. You gotta improve.”
Richard says he just does whatever the team needs. He learned long ago that stardom isn’t a necessity. The teams with the most stars don’t always win the most games. The teams that win the most are the teams where everybody has a defined role and they blend together.
“I just do whatever I can to help the team,” he said. “Lots of guys score a lot of points but they don’t win championships. Winning games …that’s what’s important not who scores the most points or who gets his highlights on ESPN.
“I think we’re a great team because everybody does what it takes to win and nobody cares who leads the team in scoring or stuff like that. At the end of the day, it’s about which team got the most points not about which player got the most.”
He treasures each chance to play, knowing it will come to an end far sooner than he wants. He still can’t believe how quickly four years have passed.
“When we’re kids life goes by slow but the older we get …” Richard said. “I remember getting here summer B my freshman year and now it’s almost over. I don’t know what’s left to do. I’ve done everything almost basketball wise — there’s still a repeat and I want that. I’m getting a degree so I think you could say I’ve taken advantage of all the resources that were available for me and I took advantage of what was here for me at the school. It’s gone by way too fast.”
When he takes the floor Sunday against Purdue, you won’t have to worry about his motivation. All he has to do is think about what happens if the Gators lose.
“You lose and it’s all over,” said Richard. “We know what’s at stake. I don’t think you have to worry about us being motivated.”
SUNDAY GAME NOTES: The Gators have won 13 straight post season games dating back to last year’s SEC Tournament … Florida’s seven-game winning streak in NCAA Tournament games is the longest in the nation … Humphrey has hit a three-pointer in 34 straight games, a Florida school record … Humphrey has 269 three-pointers in his career. He needs five more to tie Brett Nelson (274) as Florida’s all-time leader … Florida hit seven straight three-pointers in the second half against Jackson State, the best streak of the season … Taurean Green had 12 assists Friday night, the highest total by a Gator since Corey Brewer had 13 on December 18, 2005 … With the win over Jackson State, Florida got to the 30-win mark for the second straight year and only the second time in Florida basketball history … Billy Donovan is 17-7 in NCAA Tournament games … Florida shot 58.9 percent from the field against Jackson State. The Gators lead the NCAA in shooting percentage (52.9 percent).