I could say it's hard to root against Nick Richards, but that would be an understatement. Over the past three years, there has not been a basketball player on Kentucky's roster with more ups-and-downs, who's faced more criticism or who's deserved more success than UK's junior big man.
Over the past weeks and maybe even months, the BBN has wrestled with one changing core belief: what they are witnessing now must be considered the norm for Nick Richards. At first, it almost felt like a trap; Richards did have a few great games during his first two seasons, after all. He had 25 points against Purdue Fort Wayne early in his freshman year and 14 points against Vanderbilt last year. Still, he was never able to sustain any momentum. He finished his freshman season averaging 5.1 points per game, which then went down to 4.0 ppg the following year.
This year, his season average currently reads 14.3 points per game. Since his game-changing performance against Louisville, Richards is earning 17.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game. He's hit 51-of-77 field goals (66.2 percent), good for the top-spot in the SEC. He's averaging more points per game this season than he earned in the Cats' four-games stretch during March Madness last season - he earned 13 combined points against Abilene Christian (8 points), Wofford (3 points), Houston (2 points) and Auburn (0 points) last year.
As if the case couldn't have been made before, these past eight games have proven the "new" Nick Richards is here. It's still Nick Richards, but he's been reimagined.
He's become a player with confidence, fight and, yes, even a pretty lethal hook shot. Coming into the season, many predicted a PJ Washington-esque jump from EJ Montgomery. When Richards didn't make that jump last year, it was easy to assume this season would be more of the same from him as a junior. But while Montgomery been slowly improving in the past few games, it's impossible to compare those gradual and relatively-small changes to the ones we're seeing in Richards. The Cats simply wouldn't be winning games without him.
"We have no chance of winning without Nick," Immanuel Quickley said after the Texas Tech game. "What he did for us - rebounding the ball, scoring in the paint when we needed it. 25 [points] and 14 [rebounds], four blocks. There aren't too many big men in the country doing that. What he brought today was real big."
His point totals this season have only read as a single-digit number four times this season, three of which (non-coincidentally) align with Kentucky's three worst losses. He had six points against Evansville, five against Utah and two against Ohio State. The only other time he failed to reach double-digit scoring was his seven-point performance against Michigan State to open the season. That night, Tyrese Maxey's 26 points carried the Cats. Since then, it's been the Nick Richards show.
"I feel very comfortable knowing that I know my role on the team right now," Richards said Saturday night. "Even though I don't take the most shots on the team, I still know my role on this team. Rebounding, block shots, get easy baskets when needed, set good screens. I'm just very comfortable right now."
He's watched more than a handful of his former teammates leave the Bluegrass for the NBA; he's literally the only player remaining from his freshman year squad
. He's had to be patient, remain hopeful and find a way to stay in a positive mindset, even when things weren't working out exactly as he may have planned. Somehow, someway, he's done just that.
"Everybody has their own story. Just because I go to a school known for one-and-dones, doesn't mean I have to be one-and-done. It took me time to develop," Richards said Saturday. "Over the past three years, I've had the best time of my life
: meeting incredible people, having the best coaching staff in the world, training to be the player I am right now and to be the best player I can become."
The way his teammates - past and present - speak about his work ethic, his game and his character on Twitter says more than any "outsider" or even analyst ever could.
Personally, I struggle to think of a Kentucky player I've wanted it for more in the Calipari era, or one I was happier for when positive momentum started to swing his way. The Harrison twins struggled with the spotlight and were often subject to harsh criticism online, so Aaron's iconic shots and the eternal glory he earned from them come to mind. Perhaps Josh Harrellson fits the bill, as he overcame a surely-demoralizing ride home in the team's equipment bus under then-Coach Billy Gillispie to become a consistent contributor for John Calipari in 2010 (not to mention his 23-point night against Louisville).
Still, my heart says it's Nick Richards. I spent two years listening to Calipari scream about "two-handed rebounds, Nick!," while simultaneously hearing about Richards' quick transition into the game itself. Just as every true member of the BBN knows Willie Cauley-Stein played football in high school, so too do we understand Richards didn't start playing basketball competitively until his later teenage years.
In Jamaica, he competed in soccer, cricket and track and field. After moving to an American basketball academy for high school, his name quickly shot to the top of recruiting boards. He became a five-star prospect and was named a McDonald's All-American, but he added just two points, two rebounds and two blocked shots in that game. Standing nearly 7-feet tall with an impressive wingspan, his measurables were there from the beginning, but it was continuously difficult to judge him off of more than simply his build and his potential. Children in America, especially those who dream of earning a spot on Kentucky's roster, can join a legitimate, organized team and start taking basketball "seriously" while they're still in elementary school. Nick Richards was a literal decade behind. Perhaps this "new" Nick Richards isn't so new after all; perhaps he's just growing up and growing into himself.
Richards' relationship with Calipari is another important contributing factor in the beauty of this story. While none of us will ever fully know what's going on behind-the-scenes, it's fairly safe to assume there were frustrations from both parties over the years. Perhaps Richards wanted more playing time throughout his first two seasons; perhaps Calipari couldn't get through to Richards at first.
Maybe it's been sunshine and roses from the get-go, but I believe the most-likely scenario is that duo has found a way to weather the good and the bad of each other.
This season, it's been pretty good. Calipari has repeatedly praised Richards' play, crediting his newly-found gym-rat mentality for his improvements. He uses Richards' tendency to lift weights, run on the treadmill and get up extra shots outside of practice as an example for his teammates who need an extra push. Richards sometimes spends practice going one-on-one against the guards so he'll be ready to contribute on any spot on the floor.
On the UK Sports Network post-game show Saturday night, Nate Sestina said he's seen that attitude since the moment he joined the team, and it's inspired him to find that same passion.
"When I got here in the summer, I watched a couple of his workouts," Sestina said. "I fell in love with it. Nick has fallen in love with it too. It's not a fluke - he's actually doing it. He's in the weight room getting up extra reps; he's going up against the guards... Give credit to the coaches, but really give it to him. He has one of the best efforts and the best drives on this team to be great."
Weeks of compliments from his head coach culminated in a pretty-unique reward Saturday night, when Coach Cal gave Richards a kiss on the forehead
after the win.
There have been other "cute" player-coach moments throughout the Calipari era, but it's impossible to ignore the significance of this one. After everything - the missed shots and the dropped rebounds, the slow feet and the bad games - the duo stayed strong.
Despite being one of the few McDonald's All-Americans to remain at Kentucky for more than a single season, Richards kept his cool and found a way to grow his confidence. Calipari and his staff didn't give up on Richards, and Nick Richards didn't give up on himself.
I think we can all learn something from that.