Going into the season, most felt Kentucky’s biggest problem would be juggling all of the talent on the roster and figuring out which lineups worked best together. With four perceived elite big men of various skill sets and styles of play, it was assumed the frontcourt would be the focal point of some of those questions.
Reid Travis and PJ Washington have since established themselves as the stars in the middle, with each being capable of finishing with a double-double on any given night. As for freshman center EJ Montgomery and sophomore Nick Richards, however, the solution hasn’t been so simple. They have both had bright moments on both ends of the floor, but inconsistent play from the two finesse bigs has limited the unit from reaching its full potential.
To solve that issue, head coach John Calipari announced a simple, yet effective challenge for both Montgomery and Richards. Whoever wins earns more playing time.
“I want to challenge Nick and EJ, whichever one is blocking shots and having a presence, you will play more,” he said following Kentucky’s victory over Winthrop on Wednesday. “So if you want to play more, you do that.”
And it didn’t take long to find an answer, as EJ Montgomery came with an obvious edge in Kentucky’s 77-62 victory over Tennessee State, while Nick Richards shied away from the spotlight.
Montgomery finished the day with five points, six rebounds, two blocks, and just one foul in 24 minutes. Richards, on the other hand, came away with just two points, one rebound, and two fouls in ten minutes of action.
And it extends well beyond the box score.
Richards’ timing was off on blocked shots and he was scored on with relative ease on defense. On offense, he couldn’t get comfortable or find the proper spacing to create baskets in the paint. His lone shot came on an alley-oop slam with 2:40 left in the game.
While he wasn’t a dominant force in the scoring column, Montgomery showed fantastic instincts on both ends of the floor and was active on the glass. He blocked shots, found putback opportunities, and made things easier for his teammates. His intensity was a breath of fresh air in a game with so little of it.
So how can Richards climb back in the competition? Playing like he has nothing to lose and not worrying about the competition.
“Demonstrated performance,” Calipari said after Kentucky’s victory tonight. “You got to go in the game and perform. And what I’ve been telling these guys, they got to play like they have nothing to lose like every team we play.”
Calipari says Richards, along with some of the other struggling Wildcats, need to ignore the clutter and play with aggression. In his eyes, if you’re not confident in your own abilities, the success just isn’t going to come.
“You don’t have to worry about the clutter of how you’re playing,” he said. “Play like you have nothing to lose and go play. But I’m telling you, if you’re getting broken down on defense, I’ve done this again 35 years, guys, you’re not going to have confidence offensively. … You cannot have confidence offensively if you cannot guard. You just, you don’t. So until we build that and become that team, we become the aggressor, we become the team that anticipates and rotates and trusts and all that and it just takes time.”
If you ask fellow frontcourt member Reid Travis, there is nothing to worry about for Richards and his role on the team going forward. In fact, he expects a massive game coming for the sophomore center sooner rather than later.
“I wouldn’t say anything is going on,” Travis said. “We’ve got a team with a lot of talented guys, and there’s going to be flows with more guys getting shots and other guys getting opportunities, things like that. I see Nick every day in practice, he puts the same level of effort in, working hard every day. He’s doing all the things he needs to do to be successful, I just think it’s one of those things where he’s going to watch film and figure out what he needs to do to be successful. You’re going to see things click, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a big game coming from him soon.”