LEXINGTON, Ky. — So how does a 7-foot-tall McDonald’s All-American who produced 25 points and 15 rebounds in his sixth college game finish his freshman season at Kentucky with a total of 11 points and 20 rebounds over the last 10 games?
“By him losing confidence,” point guard Quade Green said of Nick Richards. “It lost confidence for us as a team, too, because we really needed him last year, but he couldn’t give it to us, so we had to do it without him.”
The Wildcats won the SEC Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament despite Richards playing single-digit minutes in all six postseason games. John Calipari kept him in the starting lineup for all 37 games, hoping he’d get a couple quick baskets one night and magically regain his confidence — but by the end of the season, he had none.
“The transition from high school to college, it takes a toll on certain players,” said Richards, who averaged 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds as a freshman. “Your body just wears and tears, and you don’t really know how to recover. In high school, I got out of practice and just went home. I never really thought of stuff like this, just those little things.”
He was so broken by March that some wondered whether Richards might transfer to a program where the spotlight wasn’t so bright or turn pro and work on his game in the relative obscurity of the NBA’s developmental G League or overseas. But he came back, along with point guard Green and power forward PJ Washington — fellow former McDonald’s All-Americans — and redshirt freshman shooting guard Jemarl Baker.
From the sound of it, Richards has put a little pep back in his step this summer.
“I’m pretty confident in myself right now, [more] than I was last season,” he said. “I actually haven’t been more excited about going into a season than this one right now. This is probably the most excited I’ve been about playing basketball in my entire life.”
Richards offered fleeting glimpses of his potential last season: 9 rebounds against Kansas, 25 and 15 against Fort Wayne, 9 and 8 in a win at West Virginia. In one stretch, the giant center with a 7-foot-5 wingspan hit 19 of 23 free throws — and 72 percent for the season.
So perhaps he just needed to hit the reboot button heading into his sophomore year.
“He’s a completely different guy,” Green said. “I don’t know what kind of boot he hit, but he’s back together. He’s there now. I see a lottery pick. That’s what I’m seeing from Nick right now. He’s doing everything he’s supposed to be doing. On a whole new level.
“Everything got faster and stronger and he got more aggressive and got more moves now. So this second year is going to be good for both of us.”
Like Richards, Green went from 5-star recruit and Day 1 starter to total afterthought by the end of last season. Their motivation to prove they can do more — and Washington’s mission to turn himself into an NBA first-round selection — could be the fuel powering Kentucky this season.
“I just got a little bit more fire,” Richards said. “It’s going to be an exciting season. I can’t wait for it. I can’t wait to start practice. I can’t wait for my coaches to start teaching and coaching me. I can’t wait for these workouts, these games, the College GameDays. It’s all going to be fun.”