By LARRY VAUGHT
Nick Richards has scored in double figures the last seven games — UK is 6-1 in those games — and averaged almost a double-double — 16.6 points and 9.1 rebounds — in that span. He’s become UK’s leading scorer at 13.7 points per game after his 20-point performance against Georgia Tuesday night in UK’s win. If that’s not enough, he also leads the team in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage.
Here’s an even more amazing statistic about Richards posted by Shawn Smith of gobigbluecountry.com. Richards has had three games — Georgia, Eastern Kentucky and Missouri — with at least 20 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. The only other John Calipari player at UK to do it more is Anthony Davis, the best player in the nation in the 2011-12 season when UK won the national title. The only other player to do it three times is Terrence Jones in 2010-11 when UK reached the Final Four.
Not convinced about how much Richards’ play impacts UK? Consider that the three games he played his lowest minutes — Evansville, Ohio State and South Carolina — are three of UK’s four losses.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said the turning point for Richards, who was a non-factor the second half of last season, was when he got in the right shape to withstand physical play.
“The hard thing for Nick is physical play. It was amazing there were games prior to South Carolina where everybody was talking about how physical our team was and most of it started with Nick,” Calipari said on his radio show this week. “When he understood he could physically hold his position and get where he wanted on court, that was one thing.
“But biggest turning point, not even close, is that he is in shape. It’s hard to get in elite level shape. It’s painful and normally you are trying to tell yourself to stop and when you do there is probably about 40 percent left in the tank. He had that breakthrough.”
Calipari said it was similar to what happened with Josh Harrellson in 2010-11 when he helped UK get to the Final Four. Or what P.J. Washington did last year — or Immanuel Quickley has done this season.
It’s got to the point where Calipari is drawing up offensive plays for Richards, something assistant coach Tony Barbee said he could not have imagined happening two years ago for one simple reason.
“He probably wasn’t in the game at that point. But he’s evolved. He’s a totally different person. He’s a totally different player. And it’s neat to see it come together for Nick at this point. It’s obviously good for us,” Barbee said. “We’ve had so many uncommon freshmen here that made the game look easy, and Nick is a typical player who has evolved from his freshman year, his sophomore year, now as a junior year.
“You just don’t see that very often, especially around here. Everybody doesn’t come in here ready-made, ready to hit the road and ready to dominate. Because he was a late starter to the game anyway coming to basketball until he was 13, 14, 15, it hasn’t been natural for him, but he’s worked hard, he’s studied hard and now he’s reaping the awards –- and so are we.”