John Calipari has had great success in his tenure at Kentucky: a record of 305-71 and appearances in seven Elite Eights, four Final Fours and two championship games with one tournament championship. Through it all, there has been one common factor: strong post play.
Since Calipari took the helm for the Cats, they have been top-10 in the nation in total rebounds all but two times – years in which they failed to make the Sweet Sixteen (2015-16) and lost in the first round of the NIT (2013-14). Furthermore, Kentucky has been a top-10 team in blocked shots in all but the 2017-18 season (in which they were ranked 20th) and lost in the Sweet Sixteen. Because of this, getting quality big men is a must for the Cats next year—especially after losing Jaden McDaniels to Washington. As such, having Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery return should be the priority for the Cats.
Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina will help UK next year, but his impact will be greater as a stretch big (36.4 percent career three-point percentage) than as an enforcer down low (0.7 career blocks per game). Virginia Tech forward Kerry Blackshear (who may join the cats as a transfer or enter the NBA draft) has more versatility than Sestina and is more proven at the Power-5 level. However, Richards and Montgomery not only have more experience running Cal’s system, they have physical tools that can’t be taught.
While neither Montgomery nor Richards saw major action last year, both have better rebounding and block totals per 40 minutes than Blackshear, P.J. Washington or Reid Travis. Richards, in two years alone, has more career blocks (80) than Sestina (70) and Blackshear (73) who have four- and three-years’ experience, respectively.
Furthermore, Richards and Montgomery were first and third on the team in blocks, respectively, despite playing fewer minutes combined than Washington, who was second on the team in that category. Lastly, the duo, though raw, have displayed flashes of shooting ability, with Montgomery hitting two three-pointers last season and Richards shooting better that 70% from the free throw line over his two years.
Sestina will most certainly help the Cats next year, and getting Blackshear would be monumental. However, their styles are not as conducive to success in Calipari’s system as Richard’s and Montgomery’s could be. Of course, both of them need to make improvements and get closer to their potential, but neither has to put up huge numbers—Anthony Davis scored only six points in the national championship but posted 16 boards, five assists, five blocks and three steals.
Because of the way Calipari runs his team, and with the talent he has at the guard spots, Montgomery and Richards are the necessary pieces for a strong interior presence. Blackshear would be a welcome addition, but what Cal really needs are quality rebounders and rim protectors. First and foremost, though, UK has to get them back.