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It’s time for Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery’s cup of coffee in the big time

With Reid Travis on the shelf for at least the next couple weeks barring any changes, a good amount of rotational minutes just opened up for Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.

Kentucky v Vanderbilt
Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery both have a golden chance to build some momentum and confidence on their own paths towards the NCAA Tournament for Kentucky.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Before their epic encounter at WrestleMania III in March 1987 at the old Pontiac Silverdome, World Wrestling Federation Intercontinental champion “Macho Man” Randy Savage (RIP, Mach) compared challenger Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat to a cup of coffee.

During a backstage speaking segment with the late great “Mean” Gene Okerlund, Savage compared Steamboat to a dropped mug and saying that it was his “cup of coffee in the big time,” meaning he would flop in the spotlight and fail to defeat Savage to win the title on The Grandest Stage of Them All.

Steamboat went on to beat Savage in what many consider one of the greatest matches in WrestleMania history.

What was the point of that 100-plus-word lead-in and how in the world does it affect Kentucky’s frontcourt now that Reid Travis is on the shelf for at least a week to 10 days (and likely a little longer)?

Because now, it’s time for Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery to have their cup of coffee in the big time.

For those things to happen however, Richards and Montgomery are going to have to make some serious strides on both ends of the floor to fill the void left by Travis’ absence. They’ve both shown flashes of their talent, but the key thing for them and the Cats is showing those flashes more consistently as the season winds down.

Despite limited action, both Richards and Montgomery have been good defensively

The top three individual defensive ratings on Kentucky at this moment belong to Nick Richards (92.1), PJ Washington (92.8) and EJ Montgomery (94.2).

EJ Montgomery, with more playing time, can become a defensive nightmare for teams with his length and shot-blocking abilities.

Richards has blocked 4.9 (!) shots per 40 minutes this season and 7.1 (!!) per 100 with a defensive box plus-minus of 8.4, 2.6 points better than the next closest Cat, who happens to be Montgomery (5.8).

Three Cats are averaging at least a block per contest this season and I bet you probably know who those three are, don’t you? Of course you do. It’s Richards (1.3), Washington (1.1) and Montgomery (1.0).

Nick Richards’ length is going to be a problem for UK opponents down the stretch of the season and beyond.

There’s probably many people within Big Blue Nation that wonder why John Calipari is always trying to find a way to get Nick Richards going like he has with PJ Washington in recent weeks.

Richards isn’t going to give you the all-around offensive production that Washington has been giving the Cats, but he can be a sturdy anchor of a defense that continues to improve by the game.

Kentucky’s already ranked inside of the KenPom’s top-15 in Adjusted Offense (117.9, 14th) and Adjusted Defense (90.2, 9th) with Richards and Montgomery combining for just 640 total minutes played this season. (For reference, Reid Travis has played 721 total minutes this season, fourth-most on the roster.)

Travis has a keen ability to be in good positioning more often than not defensively (i.e. the Tennessee victory), but with Richards and Montgomery’s combined length and leaping abilities, these two potentially give the Cats a little bit higher of a ceiling on the defensive end.

Will they take risks and be out of position sometimes? Of course. That happens as a shot blocker. Foul trouble can along with that, too.

But, when Kentucky is using defense to spark their offense, you’ve seen how good they can be. (Running in the open floor like Travis does here is definitely a void both guys can fill.)

Richards and Montgomery can run in the open floor just like Travis does here. Kentucky’s could be even scarier in the open floor with these two playing more.

The big question is, can Richards and Montgomery come close to replacing Travis’ offensive output?

The $64,000 question for the Cats during these couple of weeks without Travis (assuming he doesn’t come back sooner or later of course) is, can Richards and Montgomery replace his offensive output or at least come close to doing so?

Travis’ injury leaves a big hole offensively. His .635 FTr (free throw rate for every field goal attempt) is the best on the team. Richards’s FTr is .625, second-best on the team, but Montgomery’s is just .216, second-worst on the team ahead of Jemarl Baker Jr.

The 4.7 free throw attempts per game that Travis shoots is tied with Washington for the most on the roster. He’s hit 73 percent of his 122 attempts this season.

In close games, that’s massive. Obviously, Travis sees the ball much more offensively than either Richards or Travis, but they’re gonna get a whole lot more of a chance to score the basketball moving forward.

Along with their individual flashes, both Richards and Montgomery will get their scoring chances with so much attention being given to Washington.

Travis has also taken 23 triples this season. He’s made only six, but that’s something that not only can help the Kentucky offense with spacing purposes by attempting those, it’s something Montgomery can do, despite only shooting 2-of-8 from 3 this year in his minutes.

This is an element that EJ Montgomery can bring to the UK offense.

In their minutes off the bench, there’s been something that Richards and Montgomery have both given the Kentucky offense: stellar offensive rebounding.

The two best offensive rebounders in terms of ORB% (offensive rebound percentage while a player’s on the floor) are, of course, Richards (16.9) and Montgomery (15.8). Kentucky’s already enough to handle without them earning extra possessions. With these two, there’s nobody better on their roster doing just that and that’s key for the Cats.

EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards have been beasts on the offensive window this year.

Richards and Montgomery will get a nice test on Saturday with an Auburn team that can really shoot the basketball and they did just that earlier this week against Arkansas, drilling 17 triples in a blowout win.

Kentucky won the rebounding battle 33-26 (with Travis grabbing seven of those rebounds) back in January when Auburn shot 13-of-30 from 3-point range alone.

Horace Spencer (eight rebounds) and Malik Dunbar (seven rebounds) grabbed 15 of Auburn’s 26 boards in that game off the Tiger bench, so Saturday could be a nice chance for Richards and Montgomery to make an impact after combining to score just one point with two rebounds and five fouls in 20 total minutes of action between the two.

If shots are coming off the rim at a frequent rate, those two have to be in the thick of things and offensively, the same applies in terms of being around the rim. Kentucky shot 54.2 percent from the field on 48 attempts, so chances to score will be there for both. Travis was a tough matchup for Auburn, scoring 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting with five free throws.