After Nick Richards posted the second double-double of his three-season Kentucky career Friday night, Eastern Kentucky Coach A.W. Hamilton made a bold declaration.
“If he plays like that, Kentucky’s probably going to win the national championship,” he said. “That’s what I think.”
In Hamilton’s estimation, Richards played “like a superstar” in leading Kentucky to a 91-49 victory over EKU.
Given that Richards’ 21 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks came in Kentucky’s home opener, it struck Richards and his UK teammates that the EKU coach was all but putting the madness in March Madness.
“You know it’s early,” Richards said before adding, “great comment from that coach.”
Nate Sestina, who also had a double-double (12 points and 11 rebounds), also tempered his reaction.
“That’s really a far ways away,” he said of a Final Four that’s five months out. “I’m not looking too far ahead.”
Then Sestina added a diplomatic follow-up. “If Nick plays like this,” he said, “we’ll be fine.”
Richards loomed large in the blowout. Besides the double-double, his four blocked shots were one shy of the career-high five he had against Kansas last season.
UK Coach John Calipari explained on Thursday what a good game for Richards would look like.
Richards would outrun the ball on offense and defense and “play every shot like it’s going to be missed,” Calipari said. “And then we will watch him in the NBA and be the next guy to go off the charts.”
And, Calipari added, if Richards had made three or four more hook shots against Michigan State, “who’s better than him?”
Richards looked dominant against Eastern Kentucky. He made hook shots. He caught lobs in and out of transition and converted.
Richards is something of a convert to the hook shot. It was foreign to him before he came to Kentucky three years ago.
“In high school, I never really shot it,” he said. “In high school, I used to just dunk everything.”
Richards dunked or laid in several lobs against Eastern Kentucky. But he acknowledged that the hook shot is a valuable weapon.
“In college, everybody’s bigger,” he said. “Everybody’s stronger. So you’ve got to find simple ways to get your shot off.”
Richards was active early, twice scoring on baby hooks in the lane.
When Richards was a freshman, he made no secret of his reluctance to play in the low post. He seemed to find it confining, and he said he had noticed that low-post play was not prevalent in the NBA.
Now as a junior, Richards said he accepts this role.
“Everybody on this team has their role,” he said. “Everybody sticks to their role. For me, Nate and EJ (Montgomery), our role is to stay in the post, try to get as many easy baskets as we can in the paint. Just try to be a physical force down there.”
When asked if he now saw a future as a low-post player, Richards said, “Whatever the future brings for me, if I made it to the NBA, God willing, whatever the team asks of me, I guess I’ll do it.”
As Richards told it, he is a diligent devotee to the hook shot now. He said he shoots about 100 hook shots before each practice under the guidance of associate coach Kenny Payne. Then he shoots more in practice. Then he shoots more after practice.
“Probably 300 a day,” he said.
Richards’ proficiency against Eastern Kentucky made Sestina gush.
“Nick is phenomenal,” Sestina said. “Oh my God, the dude was incredible tonight. Grabbing rebounds. He was on the floor. He was talking. Dunking everything. Making free throws. The dude played phenomenally tonight.”
The outcome of the game was never in doubt. Kentucky scored the first 14 points and was never seriously threatened. For more than 22 minutes of the game, and as late as more than five minutes into the second half, Kentucky had twice as many points or more than Eastern Kentucky.
With Kentucky ahead 46-25 at halftime, intermission brought no relief for Eastern Kentucky.
Kentucky outscored EKU 22-4 to start the second half. Richards contributed three baskets to the spree. He caught a lob and laid it in. He posted up for a score.
On one possession, Richards received a pass about midway from the basket to the foul line. This seemed to far for what might become his signature baby hook.
Undaunted, Richards wheeled into the lane and shot a sky hook that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might have been proud to claim.
Yes, Richards said, he got the reference.
“I really wasn’t trying to get the (sky) hook,” he said. “But, you know, it’s just one of those things. It just came naturally to me.”