Thursday, March 27, 2008

From Chicago Tribune

With less than a minute to go in one of the NCAA tournament's most entertaining and endearing upsets this season, Jason Richards' lip biting could not stifle the smile that was spreading across his face.

Davidson's senior point guard, a Barrington High School grad, could not help but smile as zeros registered on the game clock in Raleigh's RBC Center, confirming that little Davidson had taken down mighty Georgetown in the second round. This was already a dream.

"People never thought we'd come this far," Richards said.

Richards has been the one unloosening his teammates' ties—telling them to laugh, staring at them until they do, inventing corny handshakes—through 10th-seeded Davidson's improbable journey to the Sweet 16, where the Wildcats face No. 3-seed Wisconsin on Friday.

"If you don't stay loose, it's not going to help anything," Richards said.

This is Davidson's first trip out of the first round since 1969, when it reached the Sweet 16 with Charles "Lefty" Driesell as its coach.

Richards' mix of diligence and delight has had as much to do with that trip as his nation-leading 271 assists.

Averaging eight assists and 12.9 points per game, Richards is the express deliverer to hot-shot guard Stephen Curry, who has scored 70 points in tournament games against No. 7 Gonzaga and No. 2 Georgetown after averaging 25 per game in the regular season.

Richards "is a quarterback," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said. "He finds the time to get everyone set, everyone in their place. He has the ability to put the ball in the right player's hands at the right time."

If Richards' point guard IQ was not at the hardwood level of Mensa, it would be as surprising as if Einstein's children couldn't add.

Tom Richards, Jason's father, was a starting point guard at Pittsburgh and played on the 1974 Elite Eight team that lost to North Carolina State in Raleigh, the same place where his son beat Georgetown 74-70.

Tom met his wife, Mary Beth, on a basketball court, and she was a forward for the Panthers in the late 1970s.

Their daughter Lindsay was a McDonald's All-American point guard and played at Iowa before suffering knee injuries.

"It's in the bloodlines," Jason said.

The Richards family moved from Pittsburgh to Chicago when Jason was in 4th grade. Beyond genetics, their social circle includes John Calipari, who went to high school in Moon, Pa., with Tom and coaches No. 1-seed Memphis, and Sean Miller, coach of No. 3 Xavier, a former Pitt point guard whom Jason watched play as a youngster.

Both coaches sent congratulatory text messages to the family.

Bloodlines aside, it wasn't like Richards inherited Cindy Crawford's looks or Donald Trump's money, though.

As a freshman at Barrington, he was barely 5 feet 6 inches and weighed about 120 pounds. Yet he was determined to make the varsity squad.

"It was very rare not see Jason working hard," Lindsay said.

He broke 12 records at Barrington and looked at Ivy League teams before jumping when Davidson offered a scholarship.

Still, opposing fans harassed him until he had a growth spurt late in high school and shot up to his current 6-2.

"They'd yell, 'Where's your mommy? When's bed time?' " Tom Richards recalled.

He remembered a tournament in Jason's freshman season when he hit two quick three-pointers in a matter of minutes to quiet the taunts.

"I thought, 'That's a pretty good response,' " Tom Richards said.

Toughness was bred early in Jason.

When he was a 3rd grader, his dad drove him into Pittsburgh to play against 8th graders.

Jason and Lindsay were part of Tom's shooting clinics at local high schools. The siblings charted daily progress in their notebooks and on chalkboards.

Those tablets became a source of competition as much as their one-on-one games at the family's Barrington court.

At times, Tom had to take the ball away.

"It got pretty physical," Jason said. "Hey, we're brother and sister."

They also were each other's biggest cheerleader. Now Jason seems to have a nation full of fans pulling for Davidson, which has won 24 straight games.

"Maybe," he said, "we'll bring the old Hoosiers theme back."

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