Coming into the 2018-19 season, the Kentucky Wildcats were a trendy pick to win the national championship.
A big reason for that was the emergence of sophomore Nick Richards, who looked like a potential lottery pick in the Bahamas. He averaged 12 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game in four wins, and he scored 10 or more in three of the four games while shooting 80% from the field.
Richards best effort was a 19-point outburst vs. the Bahamas national team, as he displayed a variety of offensive moves that made it look like he could be nearly unstoppable in the paint.
“Trying to play freely,” Richards said of what changed for him. “Trying to play without a conscious. And, hopefully, you see the results that happen on the court.”
Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into the regular season, as he’s averaging just 3.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 11.4 minutes per game.
Richards’ inability to make any real progress from his freshman season has been a big reason why Kentucky hasn’t lived up to the preseason hype, as they’re currently 12-3 with losses to unranked Seton Hall and Alabama, as well as a 34-point demolition vs. Duke.
In those three games, Richards averaged just 1.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 12.7 minutes per game. Even that small rebound total is bloated from his 19-board effort against Southern Illinois, who is ranked 222nd nationally in rebounding.
Even so, Kentucky coaches have stressed how important Richards is to this team’s title-contending hopes.
“We need him. Not we want him. We need Nick Richards to be really, really good for us to go far into the tournament,” said assistant coach Kenny Payne in early January.
On Monday, Richards spoke on how head coach John Calipari has reiterated that belief.
“We just talked about blocking shots every day in practice. Coach is basically emphasizing that if I’m a rim protector, we’re probably going to win a national championship. That’s one of the key things we need to win a national championship, is a rim protector.”
Following Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt, Calipari singled out Richards as someone who was doing more than the box score indicates, and it’s time for the sophomore to play more.
“The other guy again made a big difference in the game is Nick (Richards). Big difference in the game. Blocking shots. I mean, again, if he’s that guy and he keeps playing that way, we’re going to be alright. We need him to play a little more than he played, probably another five, seven, eight minutes but he played good again today.”
Forget the NCAA Tournament. For Kentucky to come out of league play with a winning record, Kentucky must find a way for Richards to be a bigger contributor in the coming weeks.
Richards has just three blocks, five rebounds and eight points in SEC play thus far, but that has to change in a big way when Kentucky faces the league’s upper echelon of teams. That includes four matchups with Tennessee and Auburn, and the Cats play at Auburn Arena this Saturday.
Tuesday at Georgia would be a great time for Richards to have his breakout game. The Bulldogs largely rely on frontcourt players, as three of their top four scorers (Rayshaun Hammonds, Nicolas Claxton and Derek Ogbeide) are big men. Those three are also averaging a combined 22.5 rebounds per game, so they’ll be a major test for Kentucky’s bigs.
While it remains to be seen how good the Wildcats can be, it’s clear they believe Richards is key to reaching their ultimate potential.