For months leading back to the summer, John Calipari has made mention numerous times about just how much better this team is when it has a consistent rim protector who is challenging shots at the rim.
It has been no secret that Kentucky has struggled, and continues to struggle, with man to man defense and preventing straight line drives to the basket. Quick guards have exploited UK’s perimeter defense, especially early in the season, which has created a formula for how to attack this team on offense.
Opposing teams are still making 8.5 three point shots per game against Kentucky, in large part due to not closing out strong to avoid getting blown by. This is an area that has shown improvement over the last few weeks, but is still a major area of concern heading into conference play. The bottom line is that the Cats are a much better team when every shot is being challenged in the paint.
It can be easy to forget that Nick Richards was a McDonald’s All-American who started the majority of games for Kentucky just a season ago. Richards has now only started two games this year and is barely tallying 11 minutes per game — yet he is still tied for the lead in blocks with 16.
For perspective, Reid Travis is averaging 28 minutes per game and only has 10 blocks on the season. That’s less than one per game, which is actually a major improvement from his PAC-12 days where he didn’t block many shots at all. PJ Washington is playing 27 minutes per game and is equal to Richards with 16 total blocks on the season.
Long story short, Nick Richards is an above average shot blocker who can be a valuable asset to this team if he can work his way out of the doghouse. In the last 10 seasons, I can’t remember Coach Calipari ever shelving a player quite like he has done with Richards over the past several weeks.
A month ago against UNC-Greensboro, Richards only played one minute the entire game. Over the last three games he has averaged 10 minutes per game while registering a block in each appearance. So essentially, Richards is averaging four blocks per 40 minutes played over the last three games, all while being way down on the depth chart.
If Richards can find his niche and come off the bench to provide quality resting periods for Travis and Washington, this team will take on a whole new dimension. Richards is a true 7-footer who can provide a major disruption for opposing teams, not to mention he has experience playing the grueling SEC schedule. I am willing to bet that Coach Calipari has a plan in place to get Nick Richards contributing more as the Cats head into conference play.
On Thursday, Kenny Payne described it best when he said that this teams needs Nick Richards to make a deep run in March and be in position to win a championship.
“I just think Nick is headed in the right direction. Again, the first half of the Louisville game, he had positive minutes. Something happened where somebody beat him to a ball for a rebound.
“Well, in the second half of games, when it’s an 8-10-point game and can go either way, you’ve gotta have that ball. And we needed him to have that ball. So Coach took him out and told him, ‘These are the pivotal moments where you’ve gotta perform, that you’ve gotta produce. Nobody’s going to outwork you to get the basketball.’
“His role is going up. He’s going to be fine. We need him. Not we want him. We need Nick Richards to be really, really good for us to go far into the tournament.”
We can only hope Richards gets it going and makes Kentucky a true national title contender. It’s easy to forget how good he looked this summer in the Bahamas, so perhaps he can get back to playing at that level before March rolls around.
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