Throughout the regular season, Hamidou Diallo and Nick Richards were massive question marks in terms of what kind of production you’d see on any given night. Each of them had their moments, but not once did the term “consistency” go hand-in-hand with either of their names.
Diallo had the Virginia Tech, Monmouth, Harvard, and Texas A&M games, among others, where he showed an impressive combination of athleticism and efficiency. The game slowed down for him, and it looked like things were clicking.
But then you saw the 13 conference games he failed to reach double-figures, lack of energy, arguing with teammates and coaches, and pure frustration.
For Richards, he had his ridiculous 25-point, 15-rebound performance against IPFW, the clutch putback dunk against West Virginia, and seven total games with ten or more points. He showed the ability to block shots, run the floor, convert on alley-oops, and rebound. He was always raw offensively, but the potential was there, and he did enough elsewhere on the court to make a positive impact.
But then you saw the 15 conference games (including the SEC Tournament) he scored just five points or less, fumbled balls, opponents dominating him in the post, and a massive decline in minutes.
It has been a roller coaster ride for both players this season, but you know the one thing that has remained consistent in the process?
John Calipari’s trust in each of them.
If you were to scroll through social media on any given gameday, especially during the conference schedule, questions of Coach Cal’s neverending and tireless habit of starting Hamidou Diallo and Nick Richards were guaranteed to pop up on your timeline at least once. And rightfully so. Why not start the players you expect to see thrive night in and night out?
Half the time, it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes to yank one or both players from the lineup. If they struggled, Calipari had options on the bench to replace them with, and he never hesitated to utilize them.
Yet Calipari started both Diallo and Richards in every single game this season. Every one.
Was it so he could “whine” about starting freshmen and easily having the youngest starting lineup in the nation?
No, it was for the moment Diallo had yesterday afternoon.
“The team absolutely mauled him when he walked in,” Calipari said after the game. “Every guy was standing on chairs, hugging him. It was neat to see.”
Diallo finished the day with 22 points on 9-12 shooting, eight rebounds, two blocks, and several jaw-dropping highlights. His energy was remarkable, he made game-winning plays, and his smile shined brighter than we’ve ever seen in his time at Kentucky.
In the wise words of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Wildcats would not be Sweet Sixteen bound if it weren’t for Hamidou Diallo.
“Personally, I don’t think we win tonight without Hami,” Gilgeous-Alexander said afterward. “He played huge for us down the stretch. We went to him a little bit in a set, and he had like four baskets in a row that were really big. He works really hard, and when you work hard, good things are going to happen for you.”
For all of the comments Calipari has made throughout the season about Diallo being someone’s son, not giving up on him, taking it one game at a time, etc., it finally all made sense. The puzzle pieces finally came together and it was truly special to see.
While Diallo is being celebrated for his big break in the Round of 32, the latter half of the duo in question still has a lot left to prove. In fact, he might be the only guy left in the regular rotation that hasn’t broken through that rookie wall, if you ask John Calipari, at least.
“Nick is the only one that’s not breaking through right now,” said Calipari. “For him personally, I want to see him block and play…I want him to break through.”
In Kentucky’s 95-75 victory over Buffalo, Richards finished with just two points, two rebounds, and two fouls in eight minutes of action. It was the fourth game in a row and sixth of the last seven he had seen less than ten minutes of playing time. He has been virtually unplayable at times late in the season, and that holds true even in the NCAA Tournament. Missed defensive assignments, being just a hair late on nearly every play at the basket, foul trouble, scoring opportunities lost at the basket, etc. have held him back. Unfortunately, it has been a snowball effect that ultimately always leads to Richards finding his way back to the bench.
But Diallo had been deemed unplayable, too. He almost always found himself on the bench, as well. In the last game of the regular season in Gainesville, Diallo managed just one point on 0-7 shooting, a turnover, and a foul in 23 minutes of action. With the lineup of Gilgeous-Alexander, Quade Green, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, and PJ Washington working so well together, fans begged for Calipari to continue with that core group of guys going forward.
And then Diallo broke through, just like Calipari knew was going to happen sooner or later. Just like he knows Richards will, too.
“It’s like I was with Hami (Diallo), with Nick (Richards) and I just—we need (Nick). So starting him, maybe he gets going in a game and it’s like Hamidou and he has a breakthrough. Before you can worry about conquering somebody else, you gotta conquer yourself,” Calipari said earlier this month.
Everyone else on the team is having their taste of the pie, with some even going back for seconds, all while Nick Richards is left craving his first serving.
“I’m just letting him know he has to stay prepared because we’re going to need him,” Kentucky forward Sacha Killeya-Jones told the media following their opening round victory against Davidson. “There’s going to be a game very soon, it could be tomorrow, we don’t know when it’s going to be, but we’re going to need him to step up. I think he’ll be ready.”
With Jarred Vanderbilt nursing an ankle injury and Wenyen Gabriel, PJ Washington, and Sacha Killeya-Jones in regular foul trouble, Richards has a massive opportunity to take advantage of down low. Like Diallo, Richards has to slow down and allow the game to come to him.
“I saw him go from playing 30 minutes to less than five,” Diallo told the media. “It’s really tough for him. I love him as a teammate and I just keep telling him to stay prepared and stay focused. Everybody hits adversity. I hit it. Almost our whole team hit adversity this season. Just stay in the gym, stay physically and mentally prepared.”
After months of tough criticism, Hamidou Diallo finally had his day, and it was special to see.
Now it’s time for Nick Richards to have his moment in the spotlight.