Attention, please. Attention. Basketball 101 is now in session here in the Rupp Arena media (class)room. Professor J. Calipari, presiding.
“What was today?” the venerable one is asking. “What did you learn about my team when you watched this game? Oh, this is great when I ask you guys questions because you really don't know the game, so I'm going to ask you again. What did you learn about my team?”
Um, that you can’t let Vanderbilt get hot from behind the three-point arc? That, as much as anything, is why the Wildcats had to dig out of a 10-point hole and rally for a 71-62 victory.
But no, that’s not it. Why were they behind to begin with? Yes, the Wildcats turned it over far too many times and actually saw the Commodores outscore them from the paint in the first half, 16-10.
Wait a minute. Deductive reasoning is kicking in. Not much productivity in the paint. Could it mean…
Too late. The professor is singing out the answer: “You need Nick (Richards). Come on now. You need Nick.”
And to that I say to you, Professor, with all due respect:
We may be Basketball Bennies (I can never tell if that’s a good thing or not) but I would say if you survey the working media people on hand in your classroom, you’d get a clean sweep – we all know that. And why?
For one thing, you’ve said it more than once this season -- really, dating back to before the first game. And for another, we’ve seen it with our own, uneducated eyes. Richards is blossoming into one of the top big men in the country and has thrust himself firmly in the race for SEC Player of the Year.
That’s why, as he did tonight, when he picks up two early fouls and is pinned to the UK bench, the Wildcat offense bogs down, no matter who’s on the court.
Against Vandy, incredibly, it was two fouls within the same possession, in a 12-second span less than three and a half minutes into the game.
“What happens is he gets in foul trouble on dumb fouls,” Calipari said. “You can't do that to us. We need you on the court.”
For his part, Richards seemed surprised to hear that his coach described the player’s presence as being so absolutely vital.
“Really?” Richards later said. “I think he’s over-exaggerating,” and went on to mention every one of his teammates – at least, the scholarship players. (He’ll probably kick himself later for leaving out the walk-ons).
Ordinarily, Calipari will include a “Yeah, but…” in his praises of his junior center. Not tonight. Nary a negative word to us Bennies.
“He said that?” Richards said with a sheepish grin. “Uhhh… I’m just happy he’s my coach.”
Richards might have been a tad surprised to hear it. “He’s a guy that’s always hard on me,” he said. “I know he always wants the best for me, he always wants to push me in the right direction. That’s why I say, I’m just happy he’s my coach.”
He’s a coach who’s watching his team grow up, from a rag-tag collection of talented individuals into a unit of players who tell HIM in the huddle how they’d like to run plays and what they think will work. It hasn’t always been that way.
“The officials that threw me out at Arkansas, I need to kiss them on the lips, because they did us a huge favor,” Calipari said, referring to that day in Fayetteville when he was ejected, with his team choking away an early lead. The Cats rallied with their coach banished to the locker room.
“We became empowered and it became a team driven by players, instead of me.”
It was a similar scene at halftime of the Vandy game.
“They're down at half and they come in at halftime looking for me to give them a bailout. And I'm, like, Hey, guys, you didn't play hard. Nothing else. If you want to win, talk to each other.”
Fortunately, the conversation in the second half included Richards, who finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and a plus-minus rating of 16, by far the game-high.
The coach on the other bench played 18 years in the NBA so he knows a future pro when he sees one. Jerry Stackhouse foresees a bright future for the Kentucky big man.
“Absolutely, I think he has all the tools,” the Vandy coach said. “The sheer ability to play above the rim, set screens and roll, crash the offensive boards. The best Nick Richards that you're going to see isn't going to happen while he is here, at Kentucky. He's going to be a guy whose ceiling is going to be a lot higher at the next level."
Which is why Wednesday’s game was a lesson that was reinforced, even if our teacher thinks we didn’t know it until now.
“What did you learn about the game today?” Professor Calipari reiterated.
Uh, (you) need Nick.
“You need Nick. You guys learn. Very coachable.”