With Reid Travis suddenly sidelined, it’s adjustment time for Kentucky. That process begins with Saturday’s game against Auburn.
The obvious chore of providing a Travis-like physical presence falls to PJ Washington, John Calipari said again at a Friday news conference. Often prodding for more, more, more by the UK coach, Washington must add “a little more of the muscle game” to his play.
“I told him he’s going to be begging Reid to come back quicker,” Calipari said, causing reporters to chuckle. “Because he’s going to have to go down there and do stuff the other two cannot do.”
Those “other two” are Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.
Calipari made clear the one thing he does not want Richards to do is try to “mud wrestle” with opposing big men. The UK coach wants Richards to use his quickness and agility rather than become consumed with a muscle-on-muscle tussle.
As Calipari colorfully — and memorably — said he told Richards, “You cannot mud wrestle Jonny David and win. So don’t try.”
David is a 6-foot-2, 188-pound walk-on.
When asked about Kentucky finding Travis-like muscle, Richards said, “You’ve just got to stay tuned and see.”
One possible reason for Calipari wanting Richards to stay away from mud wrestling: foul trouble. Richards has averaged a foul every 5.4 minutes. With Montgomery averaging a foul every 7.1 minutes, UK’s now three-man rotation of “bigs” is more vulnerable to foul trouble.
“It’s a hard situation for everybody because we’re down one guy,” Richards said. “So it’s going to be hard for us to play aggressively and not get cheap fouls.”
In the past, Richards has complained about “ticky-tack fouls.” On Friday, he adopted a philosophical attitude about such fouls.
“Just part of basketball,” he said. “You’re not going to like all the calls the referees make, especially considering that it’s us. You’ve just got to play through it and hope for the best.”
Richards said associate coach Kenny Payne has been pushing him “a lot harder” in practice and conditioning drills since Travis sprained his right knee at Missouri on Tuesday.
“Because he knows I want to play a lot more minutes,” Richards said.
In recent games, Richards has flashed a seemingly new-found nimbleness as a low-post scorer. Against Tennessee last weekend, he faked a move to the baseline, then turned back into the lane for a left-handed lay-in. At Missouri, he pivoted past the defender and slickly made a reverse layup.
In substituting for Calipari on the second half of the coach’s weekly radio show Wednesday, Payne mentioned Hakeem Olajuwon in mentioning those Richards’ baskets.
Richards declined to take a bow.
“Just natural reactions,” Richards said. “Instinctive reactions. Stuff that we work on with coach Tony Barbee.”
When asked about Richards’ craftiness in those games, Calipari smiled.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said. “He’s inventing stuff. Ball went in. I’m happy for him. Anything he can do to build his confidence.”
UK coaches have talked about Richards becoming less effective because he get become discouraged.
“I just say, make easy plays,” Calipari said. “You try to do the hard stuff, they steal the ball. Then your head goes down. Your shoulders go down, and I got to take you out because you’re not going to rebound. You’re not going to block a shot.”
Going with a smaller lineup is one possible way Kentucky could adjust while Travis is sidelined.
“We practiced that way,” Calipari said. “We can. We can. If you can defend and rebound with it, you’ve got another perimeter scorer. It spreads their defense.”
As for UK’s missing man, Richards said that Travis said he’s feeling better as he goes through the rehabilitation process. “He’s probably going to come back better and stronger,” Richards said.
Calipari also spoke optimistically. First and foremost, he voiced relief that Travis’ injury was not more severe.
“It could have been an ACL,” Calipari said in reference to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
UK fans of a certain age might recall that UK’s 1993-94 season took a turn for the worst when a Vanderbilt player fell into Rodney Dent in much the same manner as Keldon Johnson fell into Travis. Dent suffered a torn ACL
So while fans might lament how the Travis injury hampered UK’s season, “what about him?” Calipari said. “All that he’s done. All that he’s sacrificed. All that he’s put into this.”
So the diagnosis of a sprained knee came as a relief.
“He may be out two weeks. You ready? Three weeks. Four weeks. Seven weeks,” Calipari said. “It doesn’t matter. He’s going to be OK.”
Auburn at No. 4 Kentucky
When: 1:30 p.m.
Records: Auburn 18-8 (7-6 SEC), Kentucky 22-4 (11-2)
Series: Kentucky leads 93-19
Last meeting: Kentucky won 82-80 on Jan. 19, 2019, at Auburn, Ala.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1