Nick Richards has been the story of this Kentucky Basketball season, but tonight, we found out just how crucial he is to the Cats’ success. When the junior big man went to the bench with two fouls early in the first half, Kentucky floundered, allowing a Vanderbilt team that hasn’t won an SEC game in nearly 700 days to take a seven-point lead into halftime.
“What did you learn about my team when you watched this game?” Calipari asked the media afterwards, giving them grief for not answering immediately “‘You need Nick!’ Come on now. We have 1 out of 100 [reporters answering correctly]. That’s really good. That’s a good percentage. You need Nick. And what happens is, he gets in foul trouble on dumb fouls, you can’t do that to us. We need you on the court. He is in unbelievable condition. The difference in the second half.”
In the first half, Richards played five minutes, tallying only one rebound. In the second half, he played 17 minutes, putting up 15 points (7-10 FG, 1-2 FT) and 10 rebounds, finishing with a team high +16 in efficiency. With Richards back in the game, Kentucky established itself on offense again, with the guards calling for lobs, much to Calipari’s delight.
“This is what’s great about a player-driven team. What did we do at the end that you said, wow, that’s pretty good stuff? Did anybody watch the game, by the way? The lob. The lob. We were going to run a play and Immanuel [Quickley] said, ‘Let me set the back screen, put the other guy down.’ Player-driven team. I said, ‘Alright. Let’s do it.’ So when we got the first lob, did you see him point to me? And you thought it was me that did it, like, great job, Coach! No, he was pointing. ‘I told you!’ And then we ran it three times. Dunk, dunk, dunk. That was Immanuel Quickley, that was not me. And that’s where I want this to go.”
Down seven, Calipari claimed he didn’t even yell at the team at halftime because he wanted to see how they would respond on their own. I’m not sure I believe that, but it makes for a nice story.
“Why do you think I didn’t go crazy in the first half? And I didn’t in the locker room either. It’s their team. It’s your team. You want to lose? Go ahead. It’s your team. I’m fine. It’s your team. If you play harder and put it on them a little bit and make them make tough plays, you’ll get back in it. You’ll be fine. If you choose not to — now, one of the assistants went crazy, but I didn’t.”
In case it didn’t come across the first time, Calipari really loves how player-driven this team has become.
“Having a team empowered this early, here at Kentucky, is unusual. It is unusual. Now, we probably, people are acting like, well, you got all these veterans. A sophomore here is like a grad student somewhere else. So now we got all these veteran guys and they’re playing pretty good.”
Calipari quizzed the media once again towards the end of his time at the podium.
“What did you learn about the game today?”
Reporters: “We need Nick.”
“You need Nick. You guys learn. Very coachable.”