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March Madness

Behind the Madness With Arizona Assistant

A behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be an assistant during March Madness, courtesy of Arizona’s Book Richardson.

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Arizona Wildcats assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson isn’t getting much sleep these days.

NCAA Basketball: Gardner-Webb at ArizonaWhen you’re coaching in the NCAA Tournament, there’s no time for shut-eye. This is especially true when you’re coaching a 2-seed that has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. With very little time to prepare for each new opponent, sleeping means less time for game-planning. Richardson prioritizes the latter.

“When April comes, you can get all the sleep you want,” Coach Richardson told Basketball Insiders. “You can sleep for the rest of the month. That has always been the mindset.”

Arizona plays Xavier on Thursday, and the teams have spent the last several days preparing for the Sweet Sixteen match-up. Richardson, who actually coached at Xavier under head coach Sean Miller before the two joined Arizona, explained what a typical day is like for him during March Madness.

Richardson starts watching film before 8 a.m. and will study Arizona’s opponent for several hours. When we spoke earlier this week, Richardson had been watching film of Xavier from 7:45 a.m. until 2 p.m. The only reason he stopped his study session is because he needed to eat and get ready for the Wildcats’ 3:30 p.m. practice.

“You want to make sure you’re as current and knowledgeable as you can be, so sometimes you’re watching film from seven or eight games to look for tendencies,” Richardson said. “You want to watch the offense to see what they truly run, what they’re consistently doing, what are some habits that each player has, what they call after timeouts and things like that. Then, you look at their defense and you kind of see what they do and who they are when a certain situation presents itself. For example, do they trap? Will they go zone after timeouts? Again, you want to be as thorough as you can so the information is pertinent to Coach Miller. I’ll be watching film all day and by the time I get to practice, I want to make sure that I also watched our team.

“We had a meeting today, Coach Miller and the rest of the coaches, to watch us against Ohio State. We’re watching to see what we did well against the zone and what we didn’t do well against the zone, watching to see how unselfish we were and to make sure that our defense was in place and to make sure that all of our guys are in a good spot mentally.”

In addition to watching film, Richardson and his fellow coaches try to make some calls to see if they can get any valuable information – such as play calls – from teams that played Xavier during the season. However, getting help from others in March isn’t easy.

“We try to make some calls to try to get some play calls, but at this time of the year it is really tough because no one wants to help teams outside of their league and that is fair,” Richardson said. “That’s very fair. If you are fortunate enough to know someone outside the league that played them and you can get a call or two, that is great. It’s all about trying to make sure you have as much relevant information as possible.”

Arizona has looked very good in the tournament, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen by beating 15-seed Texas Southern by 21 points and 10-seed Ohio State by 15 points.

The Wildcats enter tonight’s game having won 13 straight contests and 19 of 20 games. They’ve lost just three times all season, with their last defeat coming on Feb. 7. Arizona is playing great basketball right now, and Richardson is pleased with how the team looks.

“I know we are feeling really good just in terms of how we are playing and what we are doing,” Richardson said. “We’re playing the right way. Our offense and defense is intact and I think the most important thing is that our guys are having fun and playing really hard.”

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Richardson has been on Arizona’s coaching staff since the 2009-10 season, when Miller became the Wildcats’ head coach. Prior to that, he coached at Xavier, Marist College, Monroe College and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

He also served as head coach of the New York Gauchos AAU program. With the Gauchos, he coached Kemba Walker and experienced incredible success (winning four tournament titles and a gold medal at the 2007 USA Youth Development Festival). To understand just how impressive he was at this level, consider that the New York Daily News described Richardson as “the Phil Jackson of the AAU circuit.”

Now, Richardson has emerged as one of the top recruiters in the nation and a widely respected NCAA assistant coach. He believes his AAU background has really helped him at the collegiate level.

“It’s been tremendous, utterly tremendous, for me because AAU truly deals with relationships and with trust,” Richardson said. “You’re having a kid and his parents trust you – that is paramount – and that largely carries over to recruiting.”

Richardson first started showing interest in coaching during his playing days. He was a point guard who was constantly directing his teammates, so the transition from essentially being a player-coach to becoming an actual coach made sense for him when he stopped playing the game.

“Being a point guard, I think you’re always the coach on the floor,” Richardson said. “From winning a New York City high school championship and kind of being the leader to finishing up at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and leading the nation in assists two years in a row and getting to the NCAA Tournament Division II two years in a row, I’ve always kind of been the coach on the floor.

“Being a point guard honestly carries over because you have to know what your responsibilities are and also you have to know the other guys’ responsibilities as well. You also had to be the guy who decided who can get a shot off or how to get [your teammate] going or when to pass up a good shot to get someone else a great shot. You have to know that stuff. You have to deal with egos, emotions and moods. You’re dealing with nine other guys and trying to make sure that they are thinking the way you are.”

Understanding egos and emotions and being able to build strong relationships have been keys for Richardson as he rises through the coaching ranks. His bonds have really helped him as a recruiter and as a coach. He remains close with many players who have played for him, and they have helped him recruit and build new relationships as well.

“That culture [we have] has been incredible for us because that relationship keeps going,” Richardson said. “We still coach our guys and that is what truly helps us. Like Aaron Gordon, I’ll call and say, ‘Hey, Aaron what are you doing?’ ‘Uncle Book, I’m not doing anything, I’m playing a video game.’ They are still our players. We call Derrick Williams and he picks up first ring. Nick Johnson has been to three or four of our games, and his mom shows up to our games. Jason Terry has been at our games. Gilbert Arenas shows up. It’s not all guys that you’ve coached, but they are still around. Even Jerryd Bayless comes. It’s guys like that where you say, ‘Wow, I didn’t even coach him but they are here.’

“It’s huge because if there is a kid that is 6’8 and 230 pounds, you can say, ‘Hey give Derrick Williams’s mom a call and talk to her. I’m not going to have her call you, you call her and you ask her all the questions that you want.’ I don’t ever have to prep a player or a parent and that has been the best part. We’ve had a guy go one-and-done and be a lottery pick, we’ve had a guy leave after his second year and be a lottery pick, we’ve had a guy leave after his third year and get a first-round contract and we’ve also had a guy leave after four years and go in the first round. We are covered from top to bottom. So when a parent has a question, it’s good to be able to go back to that player and ask.”

With his relationships, experience and success as both a recruiter and coach, don’t be surprised if Richardson starts being linked to some head coaching jobs at some point soon. While he’s entirely focused on helping Arizona advance in the tournament right now, he does admit that he’d like to run his own team when the time is right.

“Yeah, definitely, sometime in the near future,” Richardson said when asked if he would like to be a head coach at the college level. “What has happened is I’ve been truly blessed to work with Coach Miller for now eight years and truly getting a Master’s degree in basketball. That is how I’ve looked at it, as getting my Master’s in basketball from one of the best guys in the country. I know he is going to be a Hall of Famer. You start to look at what he has accomplished and what I’ve accomplished on his staff – this is our fifth Sweet Sixteen, we have already been to three Elite Eights, I think five regular season conference championships, a tournament championship and this is the third 30-win season that I’ve been a part of with Coach Miller.

“To be here, you truly learn how to run a program from top to bottom; you know how to do everything. I think that when you look at guys like [Dayton head coach] Archie Miller who have had success, it just happens because it is the same regimen that he has.”

Richardson would, in many ways, try to duplicate what Arizona has done and stick to a similar philosophy if he were to have a team of his own. After all, when you have a Master’s degree in a subject, you put it to use.

“I would [run a team] very similar to what we are doing here, just making sure that you play hard but also understanding the harmony that you have in and around your team, because at the end of the day those are the guys that will run through a wall for you,” Richardson said. “You also have to make sure that you treat these guys in a first class manner. Now, that doesn’t mean you spoil them, but that means you make them accountable and you make them understand the bigger picture in life – understanding that as a team, you’re going to get everything you want out of this individually with the more you win as a team.”

Win games and everything else will take care of itself. That’s the message to players at Arizona. On a stacked team, it’s not uncommon to see players worry about things like statistics, individual accolades and draft stock – all of which can disrupt a team. But winning is the Wildcats’ main focus, since the players have been taught that team success leads to individual success.

***

Arizona will be a very tough match-up for Xavier, who advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by defeating 11-seed and a 14-seed.

The Wildcats have been winning their tournament games in convincing fashion, and even limited one of the best players in the country in Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell to just nine points on 3-19 shooting in the last round.

This will be the Musketeers’ toughest challenge thus far, as Arizona is loaded with talented players such as Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, T.J. McConnell and Gabe York.

Johnson, who is projected to be a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, has been labeled a phenom since high school when he won four state titles in California. He has been on the NBA radar for quite awhile and was a key player for Arizona all season, but Richardson was most impressed with Johnson’s growth over the last six months.

“I think he has a chance to be a really good player, especially because Stanley wants to be great and he is going to put the time in,” Richardson said. “I just think, especially because a lot of these guys are so young, it has been weird because you have arguably the most decorated high school basketball player in California history coming to be coached and I’m not sure initially when he got here that he felt like he needed to be coached. But he has grown up over the last six months in terms of being accountable and responsible. I think he will have an opportunity to be really good at the next level when he gets there. I think, for him now, he is just truly honing in on how to be great and just chipping away each day and understanding that it’s not going to happen overnight.”

As he breaks down this year’s Wildcats team, Richardson thinks the sky is the limit as long as the group continues to do the things they have emphasized all season.

“We have to be able to do what we’ve done all year,” Richardson said. “We have to be able to be one of the top five teams in the country. We have to be one of the top two teams in the country on the defensive end, we have to continue to be the top defensive rebounding team in the country and we have to make sure we can get some stuff in transition.

“Also, we can’t always just rely on our defense to win us the game. Look at Virginia. As good as they are – an incredible defensive team – they couldn’t score last round and it truly hurt them. But Michigan State did play a terrific game.”

Arizona seems to have what it takes to keep advancing in the tournament. If that happens, Richardson will continue to spend more hours than not watching film, illuminated by the glow of his laptop screen. He’ll work day and night, attempting to pick up on tendencies and find any morsel of information that could potentially help his team win.

Then, when April comes, he can sleep.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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