Unlike many other years under John Calipari’s watch, the Kentucky Wildcats aren’t playing with immediate difference-makers in the paint. Now primarily operating with upperclassmen, Tony Barbee sees the post players taking positive steps in their developmental process.
Nick Richards is a late-bloomer under Calipari standards. Those standards are lightyears ahead of typical college basketball expectations. Now entering his third year in the program, Richards has transformed into one of the most reliable players on the team.
Richards has scored in double figures in each of the last six games, averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds through that stretch. Kenny Payne and Barbee did not hesitate to call his number when the game was on the line at Arkansas, knocking down five crucial free throws in the final five minutes to help the Cats pull away.
“He’s evolved. He’s a totally different person. He’s a totally different player and it’s neat to see it come together for Nick at this point,” Barbee said Monday morning.
“We’ve had so many uncommon freshmen here that have made the game look easy. Nick is a typical player who has evolved from his freshman year, sophomore year, now in his junior year, you just don’t see that very often, especially around here. Everybody doesn’t come in here ready-made, ready to hit the road and ready to dominate. Because he was a late starter to the game anyway, coming to basketball when he was 13, 14, 15, it hasn’t been natural for him but he’s worked hard, he’s studied hard and now he’s reaping the rewards and so are we.”
Kentucky’s coaching staff remained patient with Richards through the tough times. They’re doing the same with E.J. Montgomery. The sophomore is not filling up the box score, but Barbee liked the effort Montgomery gave on the defensive end in Fayetteville.
“He’s on that same progression as Nick, so to speak. But it went unnoticed in that game how good of a job E.J. did on 33 (Jimmy Whitt).”
Whitt scored 30 points Wednesday night against Vanderbilt. Primarily defended by Montgomery, Whitt was just 3-of-9 from the field, earning the bulk of his 14 points from the free throw line.
“E.J. single-handedly made the game difficult on him because of his size and his ability to move the feet. You’re not going to get a whole lot of credit externally about how good you are defensively. It’s usually the highlight offensive plays that get all the credit, but E.J. deserves a lot of credit for what happened in the Arkansas game and what he was able to do to 33.”
Kentucky’s coaches are seeing progress from Montgomery. They do not need him to become a double-double machine like Richards. They just need to see him continually improve.