BOISE, Idaho — His team had just reached its seventh Sweet 16 in nine seasons and Kentucky coach John Calipari was calling this the most rewarding year of his career, “because of what’s happening for Wenyen, what’s happening for Hami.”
The week before, sophomore Wenyen Gabriel had come out of nowhere to make all seven 3-pointers he attempted in an SEC Tournament game. And on this night, freshman Hamidou Diallo had come out of nowhere to play the game of his Wildcats career in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
They joined the out-of-nowhere performers who included sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones — from benchwarmer to slam-dunking, shot-blocking spark plug in the last two weeks — and freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a forgotten recruit who is suddenly one of the best point guards in America.
In the span of about a month, it’s as if every piece fell into place just in time for Kentucky, which has won 9 of 10 games, to make a run at another Final Four. Or almost every piece.
“Nick is the only one that isn’t breaking through right now,” Calipari said. “For him personally, I want to see Nick Richards step up and dunk and block and play. He’s kind of holding himself back right now. And I start him just like I did Hami every day, because I want him to break through.”
Like Diallo, Richards, a 7-foot-tall former McDonald’s All-American, has remained in the starting lineup despite his plummeting production. Unlike Diallo, Richards has not rewarded that faith lately with many glimpses of his potential.
The same guy whose hulking frame, 7-foot-5 wingspan and terrific athleticism delivered 25 points and 15 rebounds against Fort Wayne back on Nov. 20 has regressed to the point that his combined postseason totals (in five games) are 7 points and 9 rebounds. The biggest player on Kentucky’s roster has blocked one shot in the last nine games.
“There’s been so many guys who came through here and struggled initially but eventually figured it out,” said assistant coach Kenny Payne, the Wildcats’ resident big-man whisperer. “I don’t know if they had the low point that he has. He’s been really, really low. And he’s second-guessing himself. He’s wondering, ‘Am I good enough?’ He doesn’t say it, but his body language shows it.”
It could only be described as sad watching Richards, the Jamaican native who smiled wide when the season began, but sat slumped and staring at the floor last week in Boise as reporters largely ignored him and often navigated around him to conduct interviews with more successful teammates in an open NCAA Tournament locker room.
He was saying the right things: “Stay patient, keep your head down, get in the gym and work hard. You never know when your time is going to come. That’s all the coaches have been telling me, all my teammates have been telling me: don’t give up and one day it will all work out for you.”
But he hardly looked like a guy who believed that last part. Payne senses as much, so he spends a good portion of his time playing psychologist with Richards — who not so long ago was a projected first-round NBA draft pick.
“Every day, all day, after every game,” Payne said of his frequent affirmations. “Nick has a lot of opportunities to extend his minutes with the start of the game. If he comes out and blocks a shot and gets three or four rebounds and he’s playing good defensively, he’s going to get extended minutes. He just has to figure that out. Hopefully, from the way Cal has done him, he has that confidence that, ‘My coaches believe in me,’ because you’re starting.”
He is not finishing games, however. In fact, lately, Richards isn’t playing much beyond the first few moments after he bounds up off the floor for the opening tip. He’s averaged just shy of seven minutes per game in the postseason.
So why, then, would Richards remain engaged and motivated?
“He has examples,” Payne said, noting the way Gabriel, Killeya-Jones and Diallo were each written off weeks ago and then roared back into the spotlight as the calendar turned to March. “We’re telling Nick, ‘Look, we need you, but at a certain point we’ve got to try to win this game.’ And he’s been good about it. After every game, we go through and break down: Why did you come out of the game?’
“Are you rebounding? The ball hit your hands and for some reason you didn’t bring it in. Did you block a shot? You reacted slow. Did you fight for position? If you don’t do those things, you’re not going to be on the floor.”
Richards and Payne agree that his problem isn’t physical, but rather mental. Richards has not been shy in talking about his tendency to get in his own head and mess with his attempts to free the mind and just play ball.
“That’s the one thing I’m still struggling with,” he said. “I still overthink too much and sometimes that can mess me up. But that’s just one of those things you’ve got to mature and get over.”
Payne is there every day, trying every way he knows how to help Richards crack the self-confidence code.
“There’s something that’s holding him back,” Payne said. “The last piece is there’s a nervousness that he has, an anxiousness: I’m playing not to make a mistake. When you play not to make a mistake, you’re making a mistake. When you play as a team not to lose, you’re losing. So we go through that every day with Nick and hopefully he can figure it out — but it’s on him to figure out. We’re here to help him.”
It’s a help-me-help-you-help-me situation for Kentucky. Jarred Vanderbilt, the team’s top rebounder, is still hobbled by a left ankle injury and was noncommittal Saturday about his availability for the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament or beyond.
Since that injury two weeks ago, Calipari has been pleading for every player to do just a little more so that the Cats can collectively fill the void. Most have answered the call. So far, Richards has not. But that’s how these things keep happening, out of nowhere.
“We pray and hope that he becomes that added piece that we sorely need,” Payne said. “When it clicks, it’s another dimension to this team that helps us.”
SHHHHHHWEET 16! Gilgeous-Alexander silences crowd as UK advances