We thought we would see this, didn’t we? The Kentucky big man, scoring from all over the floor – jumping, shooting, hitting, dunking – with a requisite number of rebounds and the occasional blocked shot thrown in. All of this from someone who might have skittered off to the NBA some time ago.
Kentucky’s 71-59 win over Missouri included an impressive stat line from a UK front liner: 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots. Only they belonged to a Mr. Nick Richards – not E.J. Montgomery, who last spring delighted the Big Blue Nation by returning for another season but has yet to find the rhythm in his game that would make NBA scouts sit up straight.
Richards brought a similar brand of fire to this matchup with the Tigers that he showed throughout the Wildcats’ beat-down of the Louisville Cardinals. He showed that it didn’t take the challenge of a highly-rated arch rival, with a national audience peering in, to bring out his passion.
The Cats were mere six-point favorites on their home court to Mizzou, but this was conference basketball time. And now, Kentucky has opened Southeastern Conference play with a victory less than three days from their first road test, at Georgia Tuesday night.
“I think it was vital for us to come out and get a win, just to show the country that we’re not going to just come out and play against Louisville because we need to,” Richards said, brushing aside a question about the importance of his crafting back-to-back, dominant performances. “We’re going to come out here and try to get better and try to get wins.”
Which they accomplished, despite getting just three points and four rebounds from Montgomery, who played only 24 minutes.
It was Montgomery who figured to be posting big numbers by now, but the sophomore forward who declined a shot at an NBA paycheck following last season hasn’t brought anything approaching the kind of heat Richards has produced over the past week.
“Part of that is just be rougher,” John Calipari said. “You can't have your emotions tied to your offense. You miss a shot, you miss a dunk, so what? Don't have it affect you down the other end.”
Calipari was talking about freshmen Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks as well as Montgomery, which might sounds surprising given that the first two have been college basketball players for a tick more than two months. Montgomery has an entire season plus this one behind him – an eternity on a John Calipari-generated roster.
“I try to tell him, be what Anthony Davis was in the (2012) national championship game,” Calipari said, imparting perhaps his favorite, blue-tinged parable about unselfish play. You’ve heard it before. Here it comes again, but it fits:
“At halftime, he walked in; ‘I can't make a shot. I'm going to block shots and rebound every ball I can get and I'm going to fly up and down this court and help all of you on defense, but I can't make a shot.’ He ended up going one-for-10 in the game, never changed his emotion and he was the outstanding player of the game going one-for-10. Be that guy.”
It would be unfair to expect Montgomery, or Nick Richards, for that matter, to be Anthony Davis. Heck, it would be unfair to ask any college player to match a virtually unmatchable season (Player of the Year, Final Four MOP, Olympic gold medal).
But it’s not too much for Calipari to ask Montgomery to give a similar effort.
“The offense will come because he's working on it, he's getting better, he's conditioning better,” Calipari said. “It just doesn't happen when your timetable says.
“The question will be, when you're working, can you keep working until it hits? And that's hard because these kids hear stuff. They've got all the clutter telling them how to play. They go to get a haircut, the guy tells them, ‘You should just shoot every ball. I don't know why you listen to everybody. You should just shoot,’ and they've got to deal with all that. It's part of it.”
E.J. Montgomery can still fashion a strong second season in a Kentucky uniform IF he can accomplish the following three things:
1.) Listen to his coach;
2.) Emulate the effort Nick Richards has shown over the past two games and;
3.) Don’t listen to the guys at the barber shop. Unless they’re talking hair, movies or sports other than yours. Then it’s okay to jump right in.