Richie Saunders is everywhere

Richie Saunders has been impacting BYU's basketball team in every way.

Richie Saunders searches for an outlet pass after diving for a loose ball
Richie Saunders searches for an outlet pass after diving for a loose ball / Peter G. Aiken/GettyImages

BYU's unexpected leap in their first year of Big 12 membership can be attributed to many factors. Their coaching and offensive scheme overall seemed to improve and they played actual defense, which had been extinct for several years until this year. I argue that the greatest contribution to the Cougars' sudden success is their player development; several players made a jump in production and overall game impact. Among the most improved players was Richie Saunders, diving, battling, and hustling his way towards providing a winning impact for his team, even in limited action.

Saunders is a 6'5" sophomore from Riverton, Utah, where he played his first two seasons of high school as a Riverton Silverwolf (I'm not positive that a Silverwolf is even a thing) before transferring to the basketball factory at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah. Saunders was highly sought after in recruiting circles, receiving offers from Creighton, Oregon State, and Utah, among others. His excellent shooting numbers stood out to several schools, and his defensive upside drew plenty of attention as well.

Following his graduation, Saunders served a mission in Seattle, Washington (where a certain writer for Lawless Republic may or may not have experienced firsthand how it feels to face up against all 6'5" of Saunders' athleticism on the court) after Covid 19 delivered him a reassignment from his original destination, Madagascar.

Richie Saunders
Saunders fights for a loose ball against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in Lubbock / John E. Moore III/GettyImages

In his freshman season, Saunders had a decent introduction to college hoops. His game needed some growth, and in a year where BYU struggled across the roster, it's hard to blame Saunders for mediocre production. This season, though, something was different and that was clear from the start. BYU came out of the gate and seemingly shot out of a cannon, flying past their cupcake non-conference opponents and handling their more challenging matchups with surprising comfort (with one big, red glaring exception). Jaxson Robinson and Noah Waterman showed clear signs of improvement in their games, and newcomer Aly Khalifa was quickly becoming a fan-favorite in Provo.

Though the team had collectively improved, I think the team's most notable contributor was Saunders, flying around the court and hitting timely shots, while never letting his defensive intensity waver. The sophomore guard led the new-kid Cougs in box plus-minus, a stat that isn't perfect and is skewed in favor of teams that win but is a perfect example of how Richie contributes to winning basketball. Box plus-minus tells us by how many points a team outscored their opponents--or were outscored--while that player was on the floor.

Among all Big 12 players, Saunders has the 10th-best box plus-minus. Saunders is the only Cougar in the top 20, which means that his contribution to winning was far and away the greatest on the team. When Saunders takes the floor, the other team groans. Like when LeBron James saw that Kawhi Leonard was checking back into the game in the NBA Finals, Saunders' opponents didn't want to see him take the floor; it's the ultimate sign of respect. Saunders was often the harbinger of a BYU run, or would at least make life difficult for his opponent.

I recall playing football in my grandparent's front yard with about 20 cousins (being a family in Utah can make a football field feel like a Chinese wave pool). On one particular play, where the quarterback had no one to throw to, he scrambled left and right before he defeatedly threw the ball out of the back of the endzone to end the play. As his receivers returned to the line of scrimmage to line up again, the quarterback called out to his brother, "Where were you out there?" To which the receiver confidently replied, "I was everywhere." That is Richie Saunders; if you've lost track of him, he's probably about to ruin your day. He is everywhere and his impact on the game can be felt in every facet.

BYU had a unique approach to their bench minutes this season, where three of their bench players were all starting-level contributors, often outscoring the starting unit by themselves. For Jaxson Robinson, his sixth man of the year season is evidence that his new role on the bench was what he needed to unlock the best parts of his game. But Saunders remains on the bench despite BYU's late-season problems with starting games flat and with no energy.

He's a lightning storm, flashing energy across the landscape and filling the Cougars with electricity. If he belongs in the starting lineup, I hope to see his improvement continue into next season. Cougar Nation can't wait to see what he'll do next.

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