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UK Basketball: Why Wildcats Need Nick Richards on the Court

Kentucky’s shot blocking center is crucial to the Wildcat defense this season.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Kentucky
Kentucky needs more of this from freshman Nick Richards.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky’s defense needs Nick Richards on the court.

Richards finished his first SEC game with just three minutes played. He picked up two early fouls in the first half, and never returned. He finished with 0 points, 0 rebounds, and perhaps most importantly, 0 blocks.

Kentucky coach John Calipari refused to put Richards back in the game against Georgia on Sunday night, the Cats securing the win without him, but Kentucky’s long-term hopes hinge on the freshman getting out of his funk and returning to logging significant minutes.

Richards’ emergence on offense has been much needed, but the Wildcats need his shot blocking presence to have a chance at another special season.

In the Calipari era, Kentucky’s interior defense has been extraordinary. The 2011-12 and 2014-15 seasons both saw the Wildcats pressure opposing offenses into shooting less than 40 percent from inside the two point line, which gave the Cats the first or second ranked interior D in the country.

I don’t need to remind you that one of those teams cut down the nets and the other was a few Frank Kaminsky free throws away from perfection and the most special season ever in college basketball.

In addition to those two stellar seasons, Kentucky had a top ten two-point defense in 2009-10, 2010-11, and 2012-13. A top ten team block percentage has accompanied each of those five seasons in which the Wildcats were incredibly stingy inside the three point line. This correlation makes sense.

As Kentucky’s bigs bother opponents with length and athleticism, they are able to disrupt shots, erase any perimeter defensive mistakes, and frustrate opponents into mistakes and missed shots.

The Wildcats fell just outside the top ten in block percentage in 2013-14 and 2015-16. And last season, the Wildcats recorded both the lowest block percentage and two point defense in the Calipari era, allowing 48.3 percent of opponents’ shots to go in from inside the arc.

Kentucky’s interior defense in the Calipari era (statistics courtesy of

Kentucky beat Georgia on Sunday with a gutty performance from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and energy and hustle from Wenyen Gabriel. However, the Wildcats only shot 31 percent from the field. Kentucky got to the free throw line enough and held the Bulldogs to 2 of 21 shooting from three to pull out the win.

This won’t be the last time Kentucky goes cold this season. To be able to pull out victories on an off shooting night, the Cats will have to improve their interior defense.

Georgia was 21 of 37 (57%) on two point attempts. The Bulldogs’ bigs had their way in the paint, scoring over Gabriel, PJ Washington, and Kevin Knox. But not Richards. Richards didn’t earn the opportunity to play Sunday night because he didn’t provide the effort to stay on the court.

He needs to fix that quickly. No other Wildcat is as good at blocking and disrupting shots on the inside as Richards, and moving forward that’s why Kentucky and Calipari need more than three minutes from the freshman center.