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The South Carolina Loss Showed Just How Important Nick Richards is to Kentucky

On Wednesday night, Kentucky lost to South Carolina. You don’t need me to tell you that.

You also don’t need me to tell you that the loss continued an annoying (if not outright “concerning”) trend of Kentucky playing down to competition, and losing to teams they have no business losing to. You can blame Wednesday night’s loss at least in part on the refs (they were abysmal) but the bottom line is that Kentucky had a 14-point lead in the middle of the second half against a clearly inferior team. And rather than building upon that lead or at least maintaining it, they let it disappear, in a loss that frankly should have never happened.

Still, as I reflect back on the game, poured through the quotes, box scores and stats, something emerged that I’d never considered – something that hit me harder than a paint can to the side of Joe Pesci’s head in the movie “Home Alone.”

That realization? This team is all-of-a-sudden way more reliant on Nick Richards than I realized, a completely different when he is on the floor versus when he is off of it. Richards’ inability to stay on the floor is one of the few common trends across Kentucky’s losses, and even in their wins, the team’s peaks and valleys seemingly directly ebb and flow with his presence on the floor. Therefore, it probably shouldn’t surprise you that Richards played just 24 minutes in a foul plagued affair at South Carolina on Wednesday.

Now to be abundantly clear I’m not blaming last night’s loss on Richards (there are way too many fingers to point there). Instead, I’m kind of saying the opposite: When Kentucky is at its best, it’s almost always when Richards is on the floor.

Now admittedly, the reason here is pretty obvious, but again, wasn’t something I fully realized until I sat down and went through the numbers. And the reasons are many. One, Richards is greatly improved (duh!) this season. And two, he has a skill-set that no one else has on the team has, on both ends of the floor. Because of it, he is a game changer in every way imaginable– for Kentucky when he’s playing, and for the opponent when he’s not.

The first place his presence is obvious is on the defensive end, as Richards is essentially this team’s only rim protector. That obviously plays a big role when Richards is actually blocking shots, something he has done well this year. His 2.4 blocks per game are in the Top 30 nationally and third in the SEC. But even when he’s not blocking shots, just being on the floor completely alters whether teams are willing to attack the rim on the Wildcats or not.

But while so much of the focus is on his unique skill-set defensively, what I don’t think I fully realized is that he also does things offensively that no one else on Kentucky can do as well.

Look, we get that all the focus with this team is on the star guards (Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey) and with good reason. They’re fearless, they’re full of character, and they (especially Maxey and Quickley) are big shot takers and shot makers.

Still, there is something to be said for having Richards on the floor, and simply being able to dump the ball to him in the paint. One, it’s simply a higher percentage shot, and two it’s even a better offensive strategy when you consider that Richards is a great foul shooter as well (close to 70 percent on the season, a strong number for a big man). Therefore, when you can feed the ball down low to Richards, it means that you’re almost always assured of at least one point, if not two. That’s something that simply isn’t the case from the perimeter, even as good as Quickley and Maxey have been.

And again, without belaboring the point, Richards is the only guy that can get you those easy points! For whatever reason EJ Montgomery is adamant about shooting 17-foot jumpers (again, which aren’t very high percentage) and Nate Sestina has been billed from day one as a pick and pop four.

It basically leaves Richards as the only real offensive threat inside the paint.

And what’s crazy is, it isn’t just eye test or even X’s and O’s that tell us that Richards is quickly turning into one Kentucky’s most valuable chess pieces, but also the numbers as well. I found it interesting that in looking through the box scores, in the three games where Richards has played the fewest minutes the entire season (Evansville, Ohio State and South Carolina), Kentucky has lost them all. They are also 6-0 when he attempts at least 10+ field goals, but he is attempting just six shots per game in those losses. Finally, they’re 7-0 when he grabs 10+ rebounds, yet just 5-4 when he grabs single digits.

All of those are simple statistics to back up a larger point: Nick Richards has quietly emerged into one of most important pieces for Kentucky basketball this season.

And they’re simply not the same team when he isn’t on the court.

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

18 Comments for The South Carolina Loss Showed Just How Important Nick Richards is to Kentucky

  1. AlwaysTrueBlue
    9:41 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

    As much as I agree, Quick didn’t impede the defenders progress up the floor and Nick didn’t block the shot like AD would have. We are what we are with a lot of upside. Play the game for 40 minutes and we win with ease. I love my team but that’s just the truth and I Quick, Haggans, and Nick are my 3 favorite players on the team.

  2. Aar
    9:45 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

    This is exactly what I was referring to before the season when I said that Nick Richards is the key to this team’s success.

    Now, we need him to bring along some backups!

  3. Rick_S
    10:00 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

    What it showed was when Hagans tries to be a 2G we lose

    • syrin23
      10:42 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

      This. First half Haggans was great. Second half Haggans was absolute trash in every aspect of the game.

  4. KentuckyRob
    10:15 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

    C’mon….PLEASE don’t compare Richards to AD in blocking the shot. That’s all I’ll say about that. EJ needs to hit the gym and work on some low post moves with the coaching staff. I hold my breath every time he tries to dribble and drive. Lastly, Hagans leads the team in turnovers with 54 and averages 3.4 per game. That has to change if this team is going to make a deep run in March.

    • syrin23
      10:43 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

      It’s not that. EJ plays soft on purpose. When he goes to the hoop, he makes moves to avoid contact meaning no foul shots, and invariably misses the shot. it’s like he thinks he’s a two guard in a power forward’s body.

  5. zoupman
    10:26 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

    I think the bigger story here is that officiating has gotten so bad, many people including myself, are losing interest in the collegiate game. Expect the trend of empty seats to continue around the country.

    • KentuckyRob
      10:53 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

      Zoup, I agree that the officiating in this game was HORRENDOUS, but in no way did It affect the outcome of the game. I think Maxey is the first players in at least 2 years to have a technical foul called for hanging on the rim. I may be wrong but it sure seems like that hardly gets called anymore.

    • Doctor21
      6:57 am January 17, 2020 Permalink

      What Zoupman said.

  6. CrystalBall
    10:28 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

    Defense allowed too many drives to the basket, resulting in the most and-ones l have ever witnessed in a game. Also, should have called a time out after Quickley’s basket to set a
    defense to force USC to use up those 4 seconds trying to get to half court.

    • KentuckyRob
      10:34 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

      Yes! Agree 100% on both points.

    • syrin23
      10:44 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

      This is a trademark of Cal’s teams. I have never seen more teams get lay ups with consistency like teams do against UK.

    • CrystalBall
      10:50 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

      Can’t argue with that.

  7. Big Sexy
    11:35 pm January 16, 2020 Permalink

    If Nick doesn’t get help underneath then it’s going to be hard to get far in the tournament. Sestina is doing OK but Montgomery, Brooks, and Whitney are playing horribly so far. Those three front court players are averaging 16 ppg and 11 rpg. I think 25 and 15 is the least we could ask for.

    Can’t keep Nick out of foul trouble though. If the NCAA is wanting this many fouls called then they need up it to 6 fouls for a disqualification. It’s been ridiculous this year. It should work to UKs advantage though. With their athleticism they should get to the basket and draw all kinds of fouls….and watch the charge. I think refs are making commissions on charges this year.

  8. dave1964
    6:36 am January 17, 2020 Permalink

    EJ is trash, what this loss actually shows is how bad this team truly is. We have guards that average 10 turnovers a game Hagans can hit a layup to save his life Nick Richards has improved but he is a foul magnet he simply can’t play defense without fouling reaches and grabs to much instead of moving his feet this team has major holes and will not be fixed by tournament time already waiting on next season

  9. kjd
    7:36 am January 17, 2020 Permalink

    We’re a flawed team.
    Their big man was on the bench most of the game with foul trouble.
    We BLEW a 14 point lead. Plain and simple.

  10. UKBoo
    8:18 am January 17, 2020 Permalink

    Nothing about this game proved Nick’s worth to the team. Not to undermine his importance so don’t take that comment out of context. UK was up 14 with and without Nick in the game. They lost that margin with and without Nick in the game. The defining reason, for me, they lost this game was the 8-12 possessions Hagans gave away during that critical second half stretch. Even with the USC drives\scores all being the same, if UK gets decent shots on those lost possessions and UK basically trades baskets, this is a double digit win. If Hagan’s doesn’t go all Hagans and UK plays halfway decent defense, the poor calls by the refs are a mute point and this is a 20 point win. Rule number one.. Never let the refs decide the game. Probably the one thing about Cal that drives me crazy is how he gives some players an infinite pass and others can’t make one mistake without being pulled. I am not impressed with Hagan’s defense or offense. He gambles far too much on both ends of the floor. Makes for decent highlights when it pays off but I don’t know if most fans understand the cost when his gambles fail.

  11. stringmusic78
    8:46 am January 17, 2020 Permalink

    Wouldn’t the key to this team right now be where there is a major lack of production?

    Lets start with the two guys that are most inconsistent. Whitney and Brooks.

    23 mins and 2 points combined.