A veteran big man is supposed to make a telling difference for Kentucky this coming season. A veteran big man made a difference Wednesday in the first game of UK’s exhibition series here.
That veteran big man was — surprise — Nick Richards. The sophomore center played big as UK beat the Bahamas Select Team 85-61.
Richards played effectively on both ends of the court. His 19 points featured the kind of post-up comfort that eluded him last season.
Richards also was a defensive presence. This came through late in the second half when Samuel Hunter, a Bahamian likened to DeAndre Ayton earlier in the week, drove. Richards swatted the shot out of bounds.
“Trying to play freely,” Richards said. “Trying to play without a conscious. And, hopefully, you see the results that happen on the court.”
The results were impossible to miss.
“Oh wow,” UK Coach John Calipari said when asked about Richards’ performance.
Calipari and Richards cited sports psychologist Bob Rotella as a difference-maker in the startling improvement on display. Richards said he speaks to Rotella at least once a week for a half hour or more. Rotella emphasizes the positive, said Richards, who acknowledged how he “really needed” to hear an upbeat message.
“Family members told me it looked like I wasn’t having any fun out there,” Richards said of last season. “It looked like I wasn’t really into the game as much as I was.”
When Richards watched video of his play last season, he could not dispute what his family said.
“It looked like I wasn’t really excited to play basketball,” he said. “Right now, I’m just happy to come back on the court.”
As a native of Jamaica, it helped to be playing against another Caribbean nation, Richards said.
“I represented them today,” he said of his fellow Jamaicans. “Not wearing the name on my chest, but just being a Jamaican.”
Calipari advised Richards to move beyond last season. “I keep saying if things don’t go well, it’s not last year,” the UK coach said. “You’re way better.”
Meanwhile, the veteran big man expected to make a difference struggled to find his basketball sea legs. Reid Travis, the graduate transfer from Stanford looked like a player still getting accustomed to new teammates and a new setting. He made two of nine shots and had almost as many turnovers (three) as points (four).
“I even said to Reid, ‘Reid, it was like you were a freshman,’” Calipari said. “First time out. You can’t believe this environment. But, I said, ‘You’re going to be fine.’”
Calipari corrected a reporter who suggested Travis looked uncomfortable.
“He didn’t look uncomfortable all the time,” Calipari said. “He went and got rebounds.”
Travis had 14 rebounds.
Calipari faulted the way Travis prepared to shoot after receiving an entry pass in the post.
“Get it and get to the rim,” Calipari said. “He was bringing it down and crouching. Then they’re whacking (at the ball).”
Kentucky led 42-35 at halftime. The game’s opening five minutes made such a competitive score seem unlikely.
Led by Richards, Kentucky roared to a 13-0 lead.
Richards, who faded down the stretch of last season, was active. He scored 10 points inside the first six minutes.
An ambivalent post player last season, Richards dominated the Bahamas Select Team from the post early. His 10 quick points included two post-up moves, plus two free throws produced by a post move. He also hit a soft jumper from the baseline en route to a team-high 15 points in the first half.
The Bahamas Select Team did not meekly submit. Three times down the stretch of the first half, the UK lead was reduced to two points. With three seconds left, Samuel Hunter drew a technical foul for shoving PJ Washington.
A free throw by Washington and two technical free throws by Tyler Herro set the halftime score.
Kentucky started five different players in the second half: EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson , Herro and Travis.
The Bahamas Select Team got the best of this fivesome, scoring the first seven points. A layup by Jaraun Burrows put UK behind 44-43 with 16:44 left. That was UK’s first deficit.
Less than a minute later, Herro drove to a basket and Kentucky did not trail again.
UK’s defense — and an opponent’s carelessness — helped restore a double-digit lead. The Bahamas Select Team committed four straight turnovers in one stretch.