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.
Interesting stat I just found: In Nick Richards three lowest "minutes played" games this season (Evansville, Ohio State, South Carolina), Kentucky has lost them all. Richards has – all of a sudden – become a HUGE part of who this team is, and the success they have
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 16, 2020
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.