John Clay

In an odd twist, Memphis and Kentucky both have centers of attention

Funny how things turn out.

On the same night the NCAA told Memphis that James Wiseman, its star freshman center, was ineligible — We’ll see about that, answered Memphis — Kentucky got one of the best games from Nick Richards in his three-year career.

You remember Wiseman, the heralded 7-foot-1 prospect who most experts believed was leaning toward signing on with John Calipari and Kentucky until Penny Hardaway, his AAU and high school coach, was handed the head coaching job at Memphis, Penny’s alma mater.

You remember Richards, the 6-11 Jamaican with the sheepish smile and easy manner who had been up-and-down through his first two years at Kentucky. In fact, the feeling was if Wiseman had signed with the Cats, he would have been the main man in the middle with Richards his backup.

Now Wiseman’s future is uncertain after the NCAA ruled that using Hardaway’s financial help ($11,500) to move from Nashville to Memphis when Hardaway was his high school coach constituted a rules violation. A former Tigers star, Hardaway was deemed a booster by the decision-makers in Indianapolis. Thus, Wiseman was deemed ineligible.

Hold on, said the school’s lawyers, who quickly sought and were granted an injunction allowing Wiseman to play. Don’t do it, said the NCAA. Memphis did it anyway. Wiseman scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the Tigers’ 92-46 rout of Illinois-Chicago.

How the story ultimately plays out is anyone’s guess, at this point. Long an NCAA target, Memphis appears ready to play the long game of fighting this out in the courts, perhaps stringing it out as long as possible to allow Wiseman, a sure one-and-doner, to play his one before he’s done. If that ends up meaning an NCAA Tournament ban, so be it.

Hypocrisy alert: As Jay Bilas points out, there is something wrong with a system that immediately deems a player guilty until proven innocent, while allowing a coach (Will Wade, Bill Self, Sean Miller, etc.) to be innocent until proven guilty.

Meanwhile, back in Big Blue Country, Richards is once again showing flashes of being a different player. After a sprained ankle kept him out of UK’s second and final exhibition game, he played 25 valuable minutes in the Cats’ 69-62 take-down of No. 1 ranked Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday.

Friday, against the A.W. Hamilton’s overmatched Colonels, he scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as Kentucky rolled 91-49. Richards made 10 of his 11 shots on offense and blocked four shots on defense.

“If he plays like that, Kentucky’s going to win the national championship, that’s what I think,” said Hamilton afterward.

We’ll see. After all, we’ve seen this before. As a freshman, Richards scored a career-high 25 points against Fort Wayne, then disappeared for long stretches of the season. Last year, as a sophomore, Richards was impressive during the team’s exhibition games in the Bahamas, then finished the year with lower per-game production — 4.0 to 5.1 in points; 3.3 to 4.0 in rebounds — than the season before.

The hope is this early-season success is sustainable this time around. Calipari said that Richards is in the best shape of his life, and because of that he has an inner confidence that only a player himself can earn. And Richards said Friday he does feel more comfortable in the offense, but maybe more importantly in the defensive scheme.

“I know a lot more about how to play the pick-and-roll,” he said. “You know, where I’m supposed to be and what I’m doing.”

Indeed, more than one media member noted Friday that Richards looks like he’s in the right place on the floor more often than he did his first two years. And if Richards has indeed figured things out, especially on a team without much post depth, that would be major plus once the postseason rolls around.

Meanwhile in Memphis, the center that once appeared headed Kentucky’s way is fighting just to stay on the floor. Funny how things work out.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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