The University of Kentucky will try for a second straight road win in the SEC when it goes to South Carolina for a Wednesday night game.
There’s always added tension going to Columbia because of how hard-nosed a team coach Frank Martin always puts together.
South Carolina has struggled to 8-7 and is 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats (12-3, 3-0) have climbed back to No. 10 in the AP Top 25
UK associate head coach Kenny Payne said Tuesday in Lexington to ignore South Carolina’s record.
“(Martin’s) culture is physicality, toughness, rebounding, fighting, you’re not just going to walk into his arena and play basketball and it’s free flowing,” Payne said. “He’s going to make the game hard. You’re going to get hit at times and you’ve gotta be ready for a fight. If you’re not, the aggressor wins.”
In a tough, physical game, the big men need to come to play for Kentucky.
The transformed Nick Richards has been a double-double force during UK’s 4-game winning streak.
The 6-foot-11 junior is averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds a game, and he’s also blocked 10 shots over that span, including five against Alabama last Saturday.
“What has happened with Nick, is when he’s in foul trouble in the first half, we’re probably going to struggle a little bit,” Payne said. “When he’s playing and he’s not in foul trouble, that rim protection whether he blocks the shot or not, they’re a little hesitant about going in there.
“So, we need him playing without fouling and he’s vital in those areas. The other piece to it is, we teach here that you have to be able to, as a big man, be versatile defensively. You have to move your feet. We want them to be able to switch off ball screens, to be able to play on the perimeter and do it with confidence.”
Richards has been notable with his ability to switch on guards. That, along with his improved overall shooting ability, have made him very difficult to slow down recently on both ends of the floor.
Richards is hitting 66.9 percent from the floor with a variety of jumpers, hook shots and lobs on the move for dunks. That is the sixth-best field goal percentage in the country.
Payne has spent countless hours working with Richards, EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina as the latest in UK’s series of talented big men.
The light has come on in a big way for Richards since Kentucky beat Louisville on Dec. 28.
“He can shoot it, he can catch the ball, he’s got a left hand, he’s got a right hand,” Payne said of Richards.
“One of the hardest things to do in this game as a post scorer: the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook. Well, I’m watching him and we’re working on running hooks across the lane. I’m seeing it with either hand. I’m seeing him become confident in shooting 15-, 18-footers. I’m seeing him get offensive rebounds.
“By no stretch of the imagination has Nick Richards reached how good he can be. But a 7-footer that runs like that, that has the ability to shoot the ball like that, that jumps elbows at the top of the square, he has physical gifts that are off the charts. His only issue is how he perceives those physical gifts. It’s not skill wise. There’s a lot left in him.”