By LARRY VAUGHT
Is Nick Richards the nation’s best center?
Probably not but he certainly has shown this year he’s the best big man in the Southeastern Conference.
Is Nick Richards one of the nation’s top 10 center? I think Kentucky coach John Calipari and UK fans would say — to borrow a song title from Montgomery Gentry — a big “Hell Yeah.”
Yet when the 10 finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year were announced recently Richards was not one of them. How can that be?
Richards had a career-high 27 points and 11 rebounds against Mississippi State and highly regarded center Reggie Perry last week, his 10th double-double of the season after he had one in 74 games his first two seasons.. He also had 15 points and seven rebounds in a rare UK win at Tennessee on Saturday.
Kentucky is 13-0 this season when Richards has eight or more rebounds. The Cats are 16-1 when he scores in double figures.
He has averaged 17.1 points and 9.5 rebounds over the last 12 games and for the season he is averaging 14.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game with a team-high 49 blocks. He also is shooting 67 percent from the field and 75 percent at the foul line.
If that’s not enough, he’s also reduced his turnovers to about one per 20 minutes played.
“He can score in a couple of different places. He can score facing up and shooting the ball or obviously get around the rim,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “He gets to the rim, and those lobs, there really is no defense for them if they get the ball where they want to and throw it up there because he is so long and can go up and go get it. I’m always impressed with guys that work hard and develop, and I think he has done that really well.”
Want more? Here’s what Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said before Richards got 25 points in the second half against his team.
“Nick Richards has been an unbelievable story in terms of his growth as a player and how dominant he’s been over the course of the last dozen games or so,” Howland said. “He’s a special talent and obviously a huge factor for them offensively. Both not only on the block, but he can face up and make 15-17 foot-shots which I didn’t know he could do until this year. He looks really good doing it.”
I’ve heard plenty this year about how good Luke Garza of Iowa is. Others on the top 10 list were Vernon Carey, Duke; Omer Yurtseven, Georgetown; Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga; Udoka Azubuiki,Kansas; Daniel Oturu, Minnesota; Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State; Onyeka Okongwu, USC; Isaiah Stewart, Washington; and Nathan Knight, William and Mary.
I just looked up statistics on a few of the players. Petrusev averages 17.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, shoots 57 percent from the field and 64 percent at the foul line, and has 24 blocked shots. Knight averages 20.5 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting 53 percent from the field. For Stewart is 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game and 57 percent shooting. Oturu’s numbers are 20.1 points, 11.5 rebounds and 58 percent shooting. Okongwu is a 61 percent shooter averaging 16.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
All have good numbers — but so does Richards.
My guess is that the Abdul-Jabbar award committee didn’t have Richards on its radar when the season started and his lack of productivity his first two years is working against him.
Is that fair? Absolutely not because there’s no way Richards should not be among the top 10 bigs nationally based on what he’s done.