Tyrese Maxey stole the headlines with his 26-point performance in Kentucky’s 69-62 victory over Michigan State in the Champions Classic, but another individual earned serious respect from his Wildcat teammates and coaches with his play on Tuesday evening.
On the surface, a seven-point, four-rebound performance for junior center Nick Richards is nothing special, nor was his 2-7 shooting performance.
But when you factor in the circumstances, specifically considering his status was in question leading up to tip-off due to a left ankle sprain that kept him out of UK’s second exhibition game against Kentucky State and practice the entire week, it was a performance worthy of praise.
“He was unbelievable,” John Calipari said in his pre-Eastern Kentucky press conference on Thursday afternoon. “Can I just tell you why I’m so happy? He really helped himself. Because he’s in the best shape of his life, he has confidence. He built his own confidence. If you’re not in shape and you’re getting pushed, and you’re late, you will have no confidence. You’ll miss a couple shots, your head will go down, and you’re done.”
That confidence extended beyond the box score. Offensively, he demanded the ball and went straight up for jump hooks and set jumpers with zero hesitation. He didn’t make them all, or even the majority of them, but the confidence was night and day from the past two seasons.
Defensively, Richards was active and persistent. When he got caught on the perimeter with a member of the Spartan backcourt, he stayed the course and countered the speed and agility with length and athleticism on his own.
With 13:58 to go in the first half, Richards chased Michigan State star Cassius Winston off a screen on the perimeter and out of bounds on the baseline, ultimately forcing a turnover.
“He was great,” Calipari said. “I mean, when I watched it, he came up and moved, got back to his own man and the people behind scrambled.”
And that success extended outside of Richards, with the entire team thriving on the defensive end of the floor.
The “crazy” part of it, according to Calipari? They just started working on defense in practice.
“You know what’s crazy with this? Everybody is talking about how we defended,” the UK head coach said. “You all know we do no defense in the summer. None. We are not in a stance. We are not working on pick-and-roll. We are doing no defense. We are not doing any defense until we do our first practice. Now, we’re teaching the dribble-drive, which means they have to be able to stay in front of somebody. But nothing else.”
For Calipari, the junior center has to do just two things each night to live up to the NBA potential he came to Kentucky with as a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American.
“He’s got two things: Every time on offense and defense, outrun the ball. Wherever it is, outrun it,” Calipari said. “You ready for this? Play every shot, both offense and defense, as though it’s going to be missed. And then we will watch him in the NBA be the next guy to go off the charts. Just those two things.”
When you factor in Richards’ ankle injury, Calipari couldn’t have been more pleased with the way the 6-foot-11 center played on Tuesday evening. He wasn’t perfect, but the Kentucky head coach was proud of the way he responded to adversity.
“His veteran mentality helped him. But he was good. He was really good,” Calipari said. “He faded away on some jump hooks. Think about if he made like three or four of those, or got fouled and goes back to the line. People would be like, ‘Who’s better than him?’ But he’s coming off that injury and he’s still feeling his way through. I’m proud of him.”
Tyrese Maxey – the star of the show against Michigan State – also turned his attention to Richards and the entire frontcourt for the success they found against the top-ranked team in the nation.
“It shows that he was resilient and he really wanted to win,” Maxey said. “His ankle was probably hurting, but I felt like he was good enough to go and he did what he was supposed to do. That goes for all the bigs. Keion (Brooks Jr.), EJ (Montgomery), Nate (Sestina), they all did really well at the pick-and-roll with Cassius (Winston) and they really helped us succeed.”
Nate Sestina had similar praise for Richards, highlighting the junior center’s efforts on both ends of the floor.
“Nick is who he is. He’s a shot blocker, he’s a rebounder, he makes really tough hooks in the post,” Sestina said. “He’s a high-energy guy for us too. He gets a dunk or catches a lob, and the whole momentum of the game switches over.
“Nick is one of the toughest guys we have,” Sestina continued. “He’s mentally tough. Being here for three years, going through the practices and the daily grind of being a Kentucky basketball player for three years is big. You can see it too. It’s a big difference from this year to last year with him. He just wants to play.”