You might have known from the roster card they handed out in the Rupp Arena media room. There he was, scowling over a basketball gripped in his massive mitts – Nick Richards.
Another clue might have been John Calipari’s declaration that his junior big man, who practiced poorly in the days leading up to back-to-back losses in Las Vegas, had been working well prior to Saturday’s matchup with Louisville.
The signs were there and, sure enough, Richards turned in arguably his most important game as a Wildcat in UK’s 78-70 overtime thriller with Louisville.
Most important, but not because of stats. He did post a double-double: a modest 13 points to go with 11 crucial rebounds. But you could argue that a third double-digit – fouls drawn – should give him claim to his first triple-double as a Wildcat.
Of the 22 fouls committed by the Cardinals, Richards drew 11 of them. That’s half, if you’re scoring in your den. And none was bigger than the personal he coaxed from Malik Williams as he was nailing a bucket that pulled the Cats to within 68-67. Then he drained the free throw to tie it up.
Oh, wait. There was another foul he drew – even bigger than the one before. After a Richards layup gave Kentucky a 70-68 lead, the Cardinals quickly tied the game. So here came Nick again through the low post, drawing a shooting foul from Jordan Nwora.
The big man who early in his high school career was a 48 percent free throw shooter, knocked down both to give his team a lead it never relinquished.
Kentucky’s triumvirate of guards – Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley – took care of the rest of the scoring, with Quickley and Maxey dropping in clutch free throws and Hagans ending the game with a signature steal and dunk.
Truly a team effort but it was Richards’ showing a side of himself that Kentucky fans had never seen that sent UK fans into the New Year feeling better about their team.
“Nick and his ability to fight and create a position for himself and really have an impact on the game… was big,” Calipari said, “even with the foul trouble.”
Oh, yes. The fouls.
Richards had just one in the first half but in the second, picked up three at an alarming pace. And still, he played the toughest minutes down the stretch in regulation and all five in overtime, somehow managing to avoid disqualification. And he scored seven of UK’s 17 points in the extra period.
“Credit to him. He’s an animal on the glass,” U of L post player Steven Enoch said. “He did what he’s capable of.”
“He came back and worked,” Calipari said, which was why he had foreseen success for Richards against U of L. “We had two great days and, really, three great days (of practice).”
Reporters asked Richards if he remembered the process that way, with Calipari predicting shoddy play in Vegas and a noble effort against the Cards. “I don’t know,” he said with a sheepish grin. “He probably made it up.”
Results would seem to back Calipari but they also point to an effort fueled by emotion from the normally taciturn big man.
“It’s a rivalry game, honestly,” he said. And he pointed to the fire in his teammates. “I would probably say this is the most we’ve ever fought as a team,” he said.
His teammates pointed right back at him.
“Nick is somebody that nobody else in the country has,” Quickley said. “He’s seven-feet, can jump out of the gym, block shots and he really just changes the game defensively. For us to have him and for him to play good in a game like is really good for him and for us.”
Whether his coach predicted success or not, Richards recognized the value of the time he put in post-Vegas, pre-Louisville.
“I just needed that break, that three-day break, to recharge me,” he said. “I definitely was more focused when we got back, paid a lot more attention to detail in practice, just tried to be a good leader to my teammates, tried to a be a good leader to the freshmen. I was just trying to be a better overall player.”
On Saturday afternoon against the Cardinals, he was. In fact, Maxey’s 27 points aside, Nick Richards likely was the best overall player. And just in time.