By LARRY VAUGHT
During his first two years at Kentucky, Nick Richards was consistently inconsistent.
He would show flashes of brilliance and then the 7-foot center would basically disappear for way too long before again having what of those games to make you wonder why he could not play that well all the time.
No matter what, Kentucky coach John Calipari remained his biggest cheerleader. Even when he had to bench Richards, the coach never quit talking about his potential and how he could be a difference-maker for UK.
This year a much more consistent Richards has emerged. He’s averaging almost 30 minutes per game — a huge increase from the 12 minutes per game he averaged last year. He is averaging 14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game while shooting 67 percent from the field — remember a few weeks ago when Calipari said Richards was the team’s best shooter from 12-15 feet — and 72 percent at the foul line. He leads the team with 18 dunks.
He’s had three double-doubles this year — he just missed his fourth one Friday when he had 16 points and nine rebounds — after getting just one the previous two years combined. He became only the fourth player under Calipari at Kentucky to have three double-doubles in the team’s first six games of the season joining Patrick Patterson, Terrence Jones and Julius Randle on that list.
He’s led the team in scoring three times this season after doing it just once in his first two seasons combined. He’s led the team in rebounding in four games this season after doing it just twice total the previous two years.
What’s led to the sustained consistency? That’s what I asked Richards Friday.
“I don’t know what to tell you man. Just playing ball,” Richards said after the UAB game. “That is just hard work I have been putting it. Hours after hours at night with coaches and managers.”
So he’s worked harder this year than before?
“I guess you could say that. I am just doing whatever the coaches say to the best of my ability,” Richards said.
He had seven blocked shots against Lamar and has become a much more consistent rim protector that Kentucky desperately needs this year. He also had 13 rebounds and left Lamar coach Tic Price praising his performance.
“I think he is playing with a lot of confidence,” Price said. “You should be a better player than when you were a freshman. There is a maturation process that goes on. For big guys, it takes a little bit longer to come around. But, I do think playing against some quality big guys every day has made him a better player.
“I think Nick took advantage of his athleticism, pretty much was a bully in that paint, which is a good thing. It will help him in his confidence and that will help him to knock down some shots. I think he is a better player because of repetition.”
Kentucky sophomore guard Ashton Hagans believes Richard’s numbers are due to his increased confidence.
“He has been the first one out on the court in practice the past few weeks just getting up more shots. He has been talking to us way more and that’s what we need to be at our best. He just has a swagger out there about him this year,” Hagans said.
The point guard said Richards’ teammates always have had confidence in him because of his immense talent.
“He is a 7-footer, has a long wingspan, can shoot the midrange and the 3,” Hagans said. “We just trying to force feed the ball to him to get him going. It’s not just trying to throw at the rim, but a pick and pop he can catch and knock down the midrange if we need that. There’s a lot he can and a lot we need him to do.”
Richards said both Calipari and assistant coach Kenny Payne “got on me” for not getting 10 blocks to have the rare triple-double against Lamar earlier this season.
“That just tells you the type of coaches they are,” Richards said. “They want me to get better as much as possible. They’re never satisfied. They just want me to get better.”
That’s a mature attitude from Richards to understand what the coaches need him to do — especially now with Nate Sestina out at least three weeks with a broken wrist. That makes staying out of foul trouble — something Richards has done most of this season — imperative. He can’t make silly fouls he was prone to do his first two years at UK.
“Fouling is one thing that I’m trying to avoid,” Richards said after he had four fouls in Friday’s game. “Just trying to protect this team because we don’t have that many bodies on our bench.”
Calipari does worry about fatigue taking a toll on Richards because the coach said there is an obvious drop in his play when he’s tired from playing too many minutes.
“He gets tired and he’s not the same guy. But when he’s alert and active, whew. His minutes should be about 28 minutes a game,” Calipari said.
When he gets tired, Calipari says he will grab players, be late on defense, leave his feet to quick to block shots.
“All that stuff happens in those extra four or five minutes (when he is tired),” Calipari said. “When you’re mentally exhausted. You need to come out.”