It didn’t take long for Nick Richards’ late-season fadeaway to continue into Kentucky’s season-ending loss to Kansas State.
On the game’s first possession, a teammate penetrated, then passed the ball to Richards standing near the baseline. Instead of going to the basket with purpose or redirecting the ball to a teammate, he seemed surprised by the pass. He fumbled the ball out of bounds.
Wenyen Gabriel got off the bench and replaced Richards before the first television timeout. Richards did not play the rest of the half, and spent only five more minutes on the court the rest of the game.
So ended a puzzling slide to irrelevancy for a consensus five-star recruit. At the start of the season, Richards seemed slotted to be Kentucky’s presence around the basket. In UK’s final 10 games, he played more than nine minutes once. He scored no more than two points in any of those 10 games and in that span grabbed a total of 20 rebounds.
Throughout this disappearing act, the support of UK coaches and players never wavered.
A caller to John Calipari’s radio show on March 19 asked an obvious question: Why did Kentucky continue to start Richards?
“The one thing you can’t take away from kids is hope,” Calipari answered. “And I want them to have hope.”
I can’t see myself failing. I have to be on top of my game and getting better no matter what. So failure’s not an option for me.
Hamidou Diallo, explaining the “dog” mentality
Before the NCAA Tournament, associate coach Kenny Payne said that Richards was an indispensable piece of what UK hoped could be a national championship team.
“We’re not doing this without Nick,” Payne said. “I hate to say it, and we try not to put that added pressure on Nick, but we’re not doing this without Nick Richards.”
Listed at 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, Richards gave Kentucky its best option to neutralize an opponent’s imposing big man, Payne said. Deandre Ayton figured to be the first such challenge. Then Arizona lost to Buffalo in the first round.
Richards suggested his downward slide had been more noticeable because of its timing.
“Everybody went through their struggles at the beginning of the season,” Richards said after the loss to Kansas State. “Every single player did. Mine just happened at the wrong (time), the last moments of the season.”
Richards was one of three UK players to start every game. One of the other two, Hamidou Diallo, had his own why-is-he-starting adversity to overcome: one double-digit scoring game from Valentine’s Day to the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Then Diallo scored 22 points in the second-round victory over Buffalo. Teammate Sacha Killeya-Jones cited tough-mindedness as a factor in this sudden re-emergence.
“He has that dog mentality,” Killeya-Jones said of Diallo. “He’s not going to let anything get him down. He’s not going to get depressed or sad about anything. He’s going to stick with it.”
Of his dog mentality, Diallo said, “That’s just the New York City in me.” He grew up in Queens.
“I can’t see myself failing,” he said. “I have to be on top of my game and getting better no matter what. So failure’s not an option for me.”
When asked before the Kansas State game if Richards had this same dog mentality, Diallo said, “I definitely think he needs a little more dog in him as a player.”
Chris Chavannes agrees. He was one of Richards’ coaches at The Patrick School in New Jersey.
“That’s part of the problem . . . ,” Chavannes said. “He’s a great person, a wonderful person. But unless you really, really get him to that (ticked)-off mode, which is not easy to do, he was not going to have that dog in him.”
Chavannes, who also sees a New York City background as helping add a stubborn insistence to someone’s playing style, pointed out that Richards only moved to New Jersey for high school. Prior to that, he lived in Jamaica, where Chavannes said he, too, had experienced a more laid back way of life.
He’s a great person, a wonderful person. But unless you really, really get him to that (ticked)-off mode, which is not easy to do, he was not going to have that dog in him.
Chris Chavannes, one of Nick Richards’ high school coaches
“Where everything is cool, man,” Chavanne said of Jamaica. “Everything’s OK. Unfortunately, in our world of competitiveness and me-me-me, now-now-now, he doesn’t mesh too well with that.
“But I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s only been in this country playing basketball for four or five years.”
Chavannes also said that Richards came from a stable family with a mother and father. “He never had to worry about this, that or whatever,” the high school coach said. “So he didn’t have that scuffle for every facet of your day-to-day.”
Of course, Kentucky represents the top end of basketball competitiveness. Richards had to adjust.
“Because you’re all McDonald’s All-Americans, you’re all this or whatever, now,” Chavannes said of all UK players. “That dog is what gets you over that hump. He’ll learn something from this season.”
After the loss to Kansas State, Richards said that this season taught him how to be a better teammate. He learned the importance of supporting a teammate who struggles.
Diallo, who got the group hug after the Buffalo game, gave as well as received support. One piece of advice he gave Richards: Don’t read social media.
“Nick is one of the hardest-working guys on this team, if not the hardest-working guy,” Diallo said.
This prompted an obvious question: Why didn’t the hard work lead to more on-court production?
“That’s just the way God works,” Diallo said. “You don’t know what God’s plan is for you. That’s why you’ve got to keep praying to God, and wake up in the morning and try to get better.”
After Kentucky beat Davidson in the first round, Payne acknowledged that the struggles had taken a toll on Richards.
“He’s a little overwhelmed at times,” Payne said. “But we’re here to support him and help him through it.”
What will it take to make Richards a more productive player in the future?
“He’s got to spend time just learning what work is, continuing to learn what work is,” Payne said after the loss to Kansas State. “He just needs to continue to build on his body, keep working hard. It’s not an easy answer to that.”
The onus is on Richards.
“It’s not in our hands,” Payne said. “It’s in his hands, when he figures it out.”