Nick Richards has made incredible strides this season, but on Saturday, he learned a very hard lesson: Kentucky can’t afford for him to take a night off any more.
Against Auburn, Richards had only seven points and seven rebounds, his worst game since Kentucky lost to Ohio State on Dec. 21. Today, UK Associate Head Coach Kenny Payne spoke at length about Richards’ bad day, which exposed just how crucial he is to this team’s success.
“We’re not going to win if Nick Richards isn’t playing well,” Payne said. “Him and Ashton, very similar. They have such a major impact to this program, to this team, to their teammates. Our success rides with them.”
Auburn big man Austin Wiley dominated Richards in the post, putting up a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds in only 18 minutes. From the tip, Payne said it was clear Richards wasn’t ready for the battle.
“Not aggressive enough. Not physical enough. Not quite ready for the battle. In this game, similar to the Mississippi State game that we’re going to see tomorrow, you better be the aggressor. If not, you’re going to be on your heels the whole night, which was a great lesson for him. I thought Wiley, Austin Wiley, really played hard against him, really tried to be physical with him. In return, he had a double double, that kid did.”
Few people know Richards better than Payne, and yesterday, Payne met with him to remind him just how far he’s come during his three years in Lexington. While Wiley, at 6’11”, 260 lbs., is historically the type of player that gives Richards problems, Payne refused to accept any excuses.
“It has nothing to do with the opponent. It’s all within Nick and his mental and how he approaches the game. Yesterday I sat down with him and talked to him about, do you remember a year ago, do you remember two years ago when you were saying, I just want to play, man. I’ll do whatever, just let me play. Well, not only are you getting the chance to play, how you play determines if this team is going to win or lose. So, that’s a lot of responsibility. You better mentally come in this thing, every single day prepared for war.”
“He understood. He remembers. He knows. He understands why there are days when he has done so well and everybody’s giving him credit and love and admiration for how far he’s came and he’s wanting that from us, from Coach [Calipari], from myself, from [Tony] Barbee, from Joel [Justus]. Well, we can’t give him that. We can’t allow him to ever relax because we have a thin margin. Very thin. We’re not an overpowering, most talented team in the SEC. We’re not the most talented team in the country. We have really good players and we’ve got to play well to win, and each guy, especially Nick, has to bring their part to the table.”
If you haven’t caught on by now, Payne — and the rest of the UK staff — is not the coddling kind.
“Nick is not in a position to where he can come in this environment day after day after having success, come here and feel good about anything. The time for Nick to feel good is when he leaves this program and he’s a success story. Until that time, every single day that he’s here, we’re pushing him for greatness. You played great? Great. Next day.”
“This ain’t the place for that. Not with me. Not with Coach [Calipari]. Look, we love them, we cherish them, we hug them and kiss them, but at the end of the day, when you step on that wood, your job is to fight. What you did yesterday is history. What you did in the game before is history. We’re forgetting about that. We’re on to the next. It’s just what it is. That’s why we have so many guys that have had so much success in this game. We don’t lay on our successes. We move on to the next.”
Richards will have a great opportunity to prove himself tomorrow night vs. Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry, who was named SEC Co-Player of the Week after putting up 51 points and 20 rebounds in the Bulldogs’ wins over Florida and Tennessee. Payne called Perry an NBA-caliber player, the core of what he believes is the SEC’s most physical team.
“Tough challenge. He’s an NBA player. Big, strong, athletic, can shoot it. Tough around the basket. It’s going to be a big challenge for our guys, especially when he’s at the four because he’s 6’9″, 6’10”. Again, athletic. Great touch around the basket. Can shoot jump shots. Can beat you off the dribble. He’s a great rebounder. So, he’s a big part of what they’re doing and a big part of our success is how we handle him.”
“If Nick comes out with the mentality that, I’m playing well tonight, I’m going to fight you, I’m going to rebound, I’m going to make strong moves around the basket, I’m going post up hard, I’m going to move my feet on defense with my hands up, I’m going to contest and block shots, then he’s going to play well. If he decides, I don’t know, I don’t quite feel like I can move my feet or I can’t fight you in the post or I’m standing straight up and I’m erect, the guy’s going to win the battle. It’s really that simple.”