Mark Story

For Kentucky basketball fans, Christmas came in May

What has EJ Montgomery learned from his teammates?

Kentucky basketball's EJ Montgomery talks about learning from his teammates and how he hopes to progress. The 6-foot-10 freshman scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in UK's win over North Dakota on Nov. 14, 2018.
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Kentucky basketball's EJ Montgomery talks about learning from his teammates and how he hopes to progress. The 6-foot-10 freshman scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in UK's win over North Dakota on Nov. 14, 2018.

If the 2020 edition of March Madness proves especially gratifying for Kentucky college basketball fans, we might look back to the final week of the preceding May as the reason.

The deadline day Wednesday for either staying in the 2019 NBA Draft or returning to college basketball for another season, broke in a remarkably favorable manner for universities in the commonwealth.

Decisions by key players to stay in school seem to have set up Kentucky, Louisville and Western Kentucky for banner 2019-20 hoops seasons.

For UK, the decisions by 6-foot-11 Nick Richards and 6-10 EJ Montgomery to return for their junior and sophomore seasons, respectively, were vital.

EJ Montgomery vs UT
Kentucky’s EJ Montgomery (23) had eight points in the Wildcats' 82-78 loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Simply put, without Richards and Montgomery, John Calipari would have had a doughnut team — nothing in the middle.

At 6-9, incoming graduate transfer forward Nate Sestina from Bucknell would have been the only player taller than 6-7 on the Wildcats’ roster.

Ranked No. 11 in the Rivals 150, Montgomery was the highest-rated UK recruit in the class of 2018. Playing behind returnee PJ Washington and grad transfer Reid Travis in 2018-19, Montgomery spent his freshman season in a supporting role.

Montgomery had a double-double, 11 points and 13 rebounds, in an SEC win over South Carolina. He had eight points against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals. In UK’s NCAA tourney opener vs. Abilene Christian, Montgomery snared 11 rebounds.

However, the willowy 225-pound product of Fort Pierce, Fla., never seemed to find an offensive comfort level, averaging 3.8 points and shooting 48 percent from the field.

With Travis out of eligibility and Washington gone to the NBA Draft, the Cats very much need Montgomery to play up to his recruiting ranking as a sophomore.

Richards, too, should get ample opportunity to take his game to the proverbial next level. In two seasons at Kentucky, Richards has shown flashes of excellence.

Last season, the Kingston, Jamaica, native had 19 rebounds against Southern Illinois and 15 against Arkansas. He blocked five Kansas shots, then came back and swatted four more against Vanderbilt in the ensuing game.

As a freshman, Richards had 25 points and 15 rebounds against Fort Wayne.

Nick Richards
Kentucky’s Nick Richards (4) averaged 4.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and led the Wildcats with 47 blocked shots last season. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

However, Richards has had far more games of minimal impact. He failed to score in double figures in last season’s final 17 games. In Kentucky’s last three NCAA Tournament games, Richards had a combined five points and four rebounds.

At Louisville, the decisions by small forward Jordan Nwora and center Steven Enoch to return for 2019-20 have Cardinals’ fans thinking deep NCAA Tournament run, too.

Nwora, a 6-7, 225-pound product of Buffalo, N.Y., was U of L’s leading scorer (17 points per game) and rebounder (7.2) last year as a sophomore.

Jordan Nwora vs Kentucky.JPG
Louisville forward Jordan Nwora (33) dunked over Kentucky guard Tyler Herro (14) during UK's 71-58 victory over U of L last season at the KFC Yum Center. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

A transfer from Connecticut, the 6-10, 260-pound Enoch averaged 9.4 points and 5.2 rebounds last year as a junior for U of L. He hit 35.9 percent of his three-point attempts and 81.8 percent of his free throws.

With Nwora and Enoch both returning, Louisville will have six of its top seven scorers back from a season ago. Plus, Chris Mack’s incoming six-man recruiting class, led by McDonald’s All-American small forward Samuell Williamson from Texas and Sweet Sixteen MVP David Johnson of Trinity, is ranked No. 11 in the country.

U of L is also adding St. Joseph’s grad transfer Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble, a lead guard who averaged 15.6 points last season.

When Kentucky and Louisville renew our state’s annual hoops Armageddon in Rupp Arena this coming season, it could be a matchup of top-five teams.

Yet UK and U of L might neither be the in-state program to benefit most in 2019-20 from a player’s decision to take his name out of the NBA Draft.

Western Kentucky’s Charles Bassey, a 6-11, 245-pound product of Lagos, Nigeria, averaged a double-double last season (14.6 points, 10 rebounds) as a WKU freshman.

Charles Bassey at NBA combine.JPG
Western Kentucky's Charles Bassey, left, battled for a ball on the first day of the NBA Draft combine in Chicago on May 16. Nam Y. Huh AP

It had been expected that Bassey was going to stay in the NBA Draft. However, late on Wednesday night, Bassey announced he would return to Western for his sophomore season playing for Rick Stansbury.

That one decision likely makes WKU the favorite to win Conference USA after back-to-back seasons in which the Hilltoppers have lost in the finals of the C-USA Tournament.

Bassey’s return means Western Kentucky will have its top four scorers back from last season. The 2019-20 WKU roster will also feature three winners of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball Award — Knott County Central’s Camron Justice (2015), Owen County’s Carson Williams (2016) and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Taveion Hollingsworth (2017).

A graduate transfer, Justice averaged 18.2 points last season for IUPUI. A traditional transfer, Williams averaged 11.4 points and 5.8 rebounds in two seasons at Northern Kentucky before sitting out last year at Western. Hollingsworth has averaged 13.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in two seasons at WKU.

This past week might have felt like Christmas for Kentucky college basketball fans, but “the gifts” are on layaway until March.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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