By LARRY VAUGHT
Getting Nick Richards was a major recruiting victory for Kentucky and John Calipari three years ago and many thought he might be a one-and-done player, or certainly headed for the NBA after two seasons.
Instead, Richards is still as UK his junior year and since he had a 13-point, 10-rebound performance in an overtime win over Louisville he has been sensational. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game with 10 double-doubles. He’s shooting nearly 66 percent from the floor and 73 percent from the free-throw line. Defensively, he is an elite rim-protector whose blocked shots can turn into transition opportunities.
“We haven’t seen a rim protector as good as Nick Richards. He did a great job of controlling the paint and it made it tough for us,” LSU guard Skylar Mays said after UK’s win at LSU Tuesday. “That’s kind of our bread and butter, and he definitely made it a lot harder for us today.”
Kentucky launched a campaign it hopes will result in Richards getting All-American honors. It’s not something UK basketball does all the time but the campaign has already got a lot of play on social media. Richards said Friday the campaign was “pretty fun” because it involved coaches, media members and teammates promoting him in a political-style ad/
“To have the whole entire team involved in it, it’s just something that we enjoy doing. The media guys, they enjoy having fun with us, just promoting us, stuff like that,” Richards said.
“I just think it’s a blessing. All the hard work that I’ve been doing over the years is paying off, but at the same time I just couldn’t be here without my teammates and my coaches and all the people who have been in my circle since day one.”
Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley said Friday it’s not hard to understand what Richards, who leads the team in rebounding and blocked shots, means to the Cats.
“Just a 7-footer who can do everything. Not every team can say they’ve got somebody like that. Can block shots, I think he had six or seven blocked shots (against LSU). That’s not even counting the shots that he changed that he didn’t block. His presence in the middle is huge for us offensively and defensively,” Quickley said.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has been a Richards’ backer even when he was not playing well. Now that Richards has emerged as perhaps the best player in the SEC, Calipari has really been happy.
”I always say if you have no post presence your team is a fraud. And that doesn’t mean the guy has to be 7 foot, but you have to have someone in there that can do something both ways – scoring, dunking, something and also making them shoot more jumpers than driving layups,” Calipari said.
Richards has done all that and now Calipari and UK hope he will soon be an All-American.