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How Nick Richards cemented his place in Kentucky lore against Louisville

There’s a reason for two-plus seasons, John Calipari has harped and harped about needing the best version of Nick Richards on the floor for his team. Saturday was the prime example of why Calipari was right, as Richards showed his growth not only as a player, but as a leader.

Louisville v Kentucky
It wasn’t just the 13 points and 10 rebounds that Nick Richards contributed on Saturday. It was the fight, passion and energy that the junior center showed that helped give Kentucky their 11th win over Louisville in the last 13 matchups.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

After his 13-point, 10-rebound performance in a 78-70 nailbiter this past weekend against that other school in the Bluegrass that doesn’t actually exist, Kentucky center Nick Richards celebrated the best way you can when you beat Louisville; throwing the L’s down.

This clip is more than just Richards pissing off Cardinal fans and players alike, although him doing that is absolutely hilarious and awesome at the same time.

It’s more about the journey that Richards has been on since arriving in Lexington a couple seasons ago.

He’s gone from what many would call a liability in the Kentucky rotation to the Cats’ most consistent player during his junior season and a legitimate reason Kentucky has found new life heading into the new year following a trio of disappointing defeats to Evansville, Utah and Ohio State with the latter two coming in the same week out in Las Vegas.

Battling foul trouble seemingly all game, including a couple of calls that were about as soft as a roll of Charmin toilet paper, Richards was still on the floor for 75.6 percent of the game (roughly 34 minutes) and registered a game-high plus-minus of +16 to go along with a game-high floor percentage of 69.4, meaning on almost 70 percent of the possessions Richards was on the floor, Kentucky scored at least one point.

Throw in his FDr (fouls drawn rate) of 3.9 — one of three players (Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley) that had a FDr of 3.3+ on Saturday — and Richards was one of three key components in the victory.

Confidence can truly change everything for a player

Kentucky was a pinch slow out of the gate on Saturday, but Richards helped get them going a bit early on.

With about 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Ashton Hagans calls for the high ball screen from Richards and showed great patience drawing two defenders in while also finding a tall, tight window where only Richards could catch his pass and score easily at the rim. Richards knew the middle would be completely open, rolling right to the soft spot on the floor. Good, simple basketball from both.

I liked this possession from Richards a lot because it’s something that we haven’t seen much from him during his two-plus seasons in Lexington. After setting the off-ball screen on the baseline, Richards immediately posted up on the right block and made a quick, decisive decision to get to the middle of the floor and use that length of his for an easy baby hook with the left hand and good touch.

Defense has never been the issue with Richards

Sure, Richards will give up an offensive rebound or two, along with his fair share of games where he’s in foul trouble, but altering and blocking shots has been his best trait and it was on display against the Cards.

Not only did Richards have to guard way out beyond the 3-point-line, he moved his feet and did a good job trying to block this layup attempt without fouling. When he’s doing this, he’s so hard to score on as a guard.

Like I said, Richards will give up offensive rebounds, but it’s not a big deal when he’s doing stuff like this immediately after. I thought he was credited for a block here, but still, he altered another shot at the rim.

Saturday was easily one of the worst games in Jordan Nwora’s career and this was just a small sample of why he struggled against the Cats. During the CBS broadcast, legendary color commentator Bill Raftery was calling for Nwora to try and take Richards off the dribble , but after Richards cut off the baseline, Nwora settled for a contested 3 that missed.

Here’s the actual lone block that Richards was credited for on Saturday. He iced the pick-and-roll and just played the drive without any trouble and blocked the layup. (Louisville got the rebound, but they lost the ball out of bounds shortly after.)

Richards did what he usually does in altering shot attempts, but he was credited for taking two charges inside of the final eight minutes with four fouls on him already.

This one was great simply for his reaction after getting the call on Williams. His emotion was one of the smaller, yet deciding factors in the win. He played like a kid that just wanted it more than everybody else on the floor.

Steven Enoch was one of the main reasons Louisville got back into the game after Kentucky led by as many as 12 points at one point, but on this possession, Richards got another charge call thanks to a little bit of selling, but good footwork that got him in position to get another big call down the stretch.

#JuniorNickRichards = clutch

Here’s the wild thing that probably didn’t hit you until after you looked at the box score for a second or maybe even just now: Nick Richards scored 13 points in the win and six of them came in overtime.

In my opinion, this was the play that saved the day for Kentucky.

With about two minutes left in overtime and Louisville leading by three, Tyrese Maxey (who was downright fantastic in his own right Saturday) forced up a tough shot in the lane with the shot clock winding down, but Richards cleaned up the mess with a huge offensive board and just got the roll on the putback for a three-point play opportunity, which he converted.

(“They’re not losing this game,” I said to myself after Richards made the free throw.)

For a team that supposedly doesn’t run much, according to Louisville coach Chris Mack, this was a well-run set from the ‘Cats in the half-court with less than 90 seconds left in overtime.

Maxey dishes off to Hagans and sprints down the sideline off a (show of a) screen from EJ Montgomery, then screens Richards’ man in the lane to allow Richards an easy post-and-curl look at the rim for two.

You’ve seen this look hundreds and hundreds of times from Calipari’s teams. They look for this throwback lob often with their bigs frequently and inside of the last 40 seconds, Maxey looked to Richards for the alley, who almost lost the ball somehow before the screen, and Richards was fouled on the catch attempt. He made both free throws and put Kentucky in front for good.

Kentucky turned their season around just at about this time a season ago and it appears, at least from Saturday, they’re prime to do it again this season. It’s not a certainty because consistency has been an issue with this team, but if this is the Nick Richards they’re getting for the homestretch of the year, the Cats should be in good shape moving forward.