ATLANTA – Left off virtually every preseason player of the year list, Kentucky men’s basketball junior forward Nick Richards has earned his way on to the midseason watch list for the 2020 Citizen Naismith Trophy, awarded annually by the Atlanta Tipoff Club to the national player of the year.
Ten national semifinalists will be announced on March 5 and four finalists will be unveiled on March 17. The 2020 Citizen Naismith Trophy will be awarded at the Naismith Awards Brunch on April 5, during the Final Four in Atlanta.
Anthony Davis, who collected nearly every major national player of the year award in 2012, is the lone Wildcat to win the Naismith Trophy in Kentucky’s decorated history.
Richards is not only enjoying the most productive season of his career, he's producing one of college basketball's best stories of the season. After averaging 4.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks over 13.4 minutes a game in the first two seasons of his career, he has emerged as a leading candidate for Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and All-America honors.
The junior forward leads the team in rebounding (8.2 per game), blocks (2.2 per game) and double-doubles (10) to go along with a conference-high .663 field-goal percentage and 14.5 points per game. Richards’ field-goal percentage mark is also good for fifth in the nation, through games on Feb. 11, and just barely trails Marcus Lee's 2015-16 single-season school-record mark of 68.0% (minimum 150 attempts).
The centerpiece of a frontline that entered the season with questions about its depth and talent after losing PJ Washington and Reid Travis to the pros, Richards has squashed any and all concerns about his ability to produce.
"How many guys have 7-footers that can do what that kid does?" John Calipari said after Richards posted 25 points and 14 rebounds at nationally-ranked Texas Tech. "Not many."
Case in point: Richards is one of just two players in the country and the only Power 5 big man averaging at least 14.0 points per game, at least 8.0 rebounds and at least 2.0 blocks while shooting at least 65.0% from the floor.
"Everybody has their own story," Richards said recently. "Just because I go to a school that's known for one-and-done doesn't mean I have to be one-and-done. It took me time to develop over the past three years. I've had the best time of my life. Meeting incredible people, having the best coaching staff in the world training me to be the player I am right now and to be a better player for times to come."
Richards played well early in the season, but his recent meteoric rise began vs. Louisville and has continued into the conference season. Despite impressive early numbers, Richards had yet to fully break through vs. consistent, upper-level competition. Against Louisville's front line, one of the best in the country, Richards delivered. The 6-foot-11 big man from Jamaica secured a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, but it was how he did it that impressed the most.
Playing the final 8:53 of regulation and all five minutes of overtime with four fouls, Richards took two momentum-changing charges and scored seven straight points in overtime with the game on the line. With Louisville leading 68-65 with 2:21 to go in overtime, Richards snared an offensive rebound (one of six in the game) and converted the traditional three-point play to even the score once again. His free throws with 27 seconds remaining gave the Wildcats a 72-70 lead they would not relinquish. Richards also drew a game-high 11 fouls to get Kentucky to the free-throw line, a key difference in the outcome. His defense was a difference maker.
The double-double for Richards was his first against a ranked opponent in his career. In 20 games prior against ranked foes, Richards averaged 3.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. He had never recorded double-digit scoring or rebounding numbers against a ranked opponent. Now he's done it in two of his last three games vs. ranked opponents after a monster 25-point, 14-rebound, four-block game at Texas Tech.
In the game in Lubbock, Texas, Richards became just the second Wildcat in the Calipari era to post at least 25 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in a game. Davis did it in 2012.
Richards was dominant from start to finish vs. the Red Raiders. After setting the tone early in the game with a thunderous dunk and a handful of intimidating swats, he took over in overtime with seven points, including the game-winning free throws with 10 seconds left and nearly 15,000 hostile fans screaming at him to miss.
Beginning with the win over Louisville and over the last 13 games, Richards is averaging 16.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks with six double-doubles, including a career-high 27-point game vs. Mississippi State. In SEC play, Richards is tallying 16.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
As Richards goes, so does UK. Kentucky is 18-1 this season when he scores in double figures, 10-0 when he grabs double-digit rebounds and 6-1 when he blocks at least four shots.
Although teammate Ashton Hagans was left off the midseason Naismith Trophy watch list, he’s a semifinalist for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year award for the second season in a row.
Kentucky, now 19-5 this season and in a three-way tie for first place in the SEC at 9-2, returns to action Saturday vs. Ole Miss at 2 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPN.