By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky Radio Network analyst Mike Pratt thinks Reid Travis could be a “glue” guy for Kentucky’s basketball team. He feels Tyler Herro could be a sensational shooter in transition. He likes the toughness of Keldon Johnson.
But Kentucky’s most important player might turn out to be Nick Richards, who basically lost his confidence the second half of last season as well as most of his playing time.
“Nick Richards is a lot better this year,” said Pratt, a former UK All-American. “He didn’t exactly pout last year. He would come out of a game, sit on the bench and put a towel over his head and just sit there. Then he would go back in and just look lost.
“This year he’s totally different. He is tuned in, ready to go, very active. He’s coming across the lane to block shots. He’s got that half-hook in the lane that is really good. I think he is very critical to this year’s team. He’s a 7-footer and has a huge wingspan. Kentucky needs a shot blocker and he needs to be that guy.”
Pratt said Kentucky has “struggled” to keep the ball out of the paint — something Duke certainly will try to exploit when the teams open the college basketball season Tuesday night in Indianapolis.
“If a team gets in the lane, you want shot blockers back there. Nick has taken that role. If EJ (Montgomery) is also back there, even better because he can block shots. Reid is long but he is not a high riser like Nick and EJ, who can also come across the lane and block shots.”
Pratt doesn’t think Calipari’s team will have long offensive lapses like last year’s team was prone to have when it could go long stretches without scoring.
“I don’t see this team having that kind of offensive slump. They have a lot of guys that can score points,” Pratt said. “Take EJ. He is not a back to the basket guy. He has a long shot. He can get to the rim and score. He can find ways to get easy baskets. He can stretch the floor at 6-11.”
What about Herro?
“Herro in transition doesn’t ever miss. Seriously. He doesn’t,” Pratt said. “I watched practice and they have this drill where you go up and down the floor and if the first guy makes a basket, you keep giving it to him as lone as he keeps making shots. The kid made 14 in a row and they were all 3’s. He’s best in transition. He’s been struggling in the half-court offense and he needs to rebound better. But in transition, he’s something.”
What about the other two freshman guards — Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans?
“Quickley has heck of a shot. He is a good defender, but not as good as Hagans,” Pratt said. “Hagans is guy that breaks you down defensively. He is up in your jock and has hands like DeAaron Fox. He is just stronger and bigger than DeAaron. He struggles with his shot more than Quickley, but he will get better. There’s nothing wrong with his form. His shot just doesn’t go in enough.
“Quade (Green) will get his minutes, too. He can shoot it and might be as good of a competitor as there is on the team. If he was 6-1, he would be a bear. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and should be.”
Pratt has noticed one major change already this year. This team has more toughness.
“Last year that team was not quite tough enough,” Pratt said. “Calipari likes to see the fighting, competitive drive. Last year’s team was just not as mentally tough as you needed to be. This team has mentally tough guys. What we have to find out now is how many will step forward in big moments like Aaron Harrison did (in the 2014 NCAA Tournament).
Here’s another difference that Kentucky fans should really like.
“This team can be as good of an offensive team as I have seen in while, kind of like the 2015 team (that finished 38-1),” Pratt said. “That 2015 team had a definite go-to guy in Karl-Anthony Towns. This team has to figure out who that go-to guy is going to be. Who do you throw the ball to when you need a basket? They have some candidates, but have to find the right guy. You learn that by playing teams like Duke, North Carolina, Utah
“If they can come with consistent defense — they do not have to break down and steal the ball. Just force tough shots and rebound and go. Then they are a legit (national title) contender.”