LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kenny Payne has been an integral part of the decade’s most successful college basketball program, an associate head coach who has recruited stars, developed big men and enjoyed an excellent rapport with his players.
So why hasn’t he become a head coach yet?
What’s the holdup? Is it that athletic directors think John Calipari is solely responsible for Kentucky’s success? Is it that the track record of Cal’s assistants is less than stellar? Is it that Payne doesn’t get enough of the limelight to have his name pop front and center on the coaching carousel?
It has to be something, doesn’t it? Anyone around the Kentucky program will tell you just how valuable Payne has been the past nine seasons, both in his relationships with the players — “KP” they call him — and, better still, his hand in developing those players.
Latest example: Nick Richards.
The 7-foot junior center from Jamaica has blossomed this season. Richards is averaging 13 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game. He’s already posted seven double-doubles — compared to all of one his first two seasons — and is a key reason why the Cats carried a 3-0 SEC and 12-3 overall mark into Wednesday’s game at South Carolina.
“He’s big as hell,” said Louisville coach Chris Mack after his Cardinals’ 78-70 overtime loss at Rupp Arena when Richards scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“You hate to lose games, but you love to see a young guy grow like that as a junior in college,” said Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin after Richards scored 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in UK’s 71-59 win over the Tigers. “I’m happy for him.”
Surely Payne deserves much of the credit for Richards’ development. He’s the UK assistant who works closely with the post players. And Richards has gone from a project contributing four (sophomore season) or five points (freshman year) a game to a consistent force at both ends of the floor.
“He reminds me a little bit of Willie Cauley-Stein,” Payne said Tuesday of the former UK big man who didn’t fully develop until his third college season. “Year one, he was really good. Nick probably wasn’t as good. When I say good, good defensively. Willie was off the charts feet-wise defensively. He could move his feet with anybody.”
Before year two, Cauley-Stein told Payne he wanted to enter the NBA craft at season’s end. Payne told the sophomore he wasn’t ready offensively. At the end of that season, with that in mind, Cauley-Stein left Payne a note on his wall saying he was coming back for his junior season. At the end of his third year, WCS was taken with the sixth overall pick in the draft.
“So when I think of Nick I think about how much he’s conquered mentally but how far he has to go, as well,” Payne said. “So yeah, I’m pleased. But by no stretch of the imagination has Nick Richards reached how good he could be.”
Payne hasn’t reached how far he can go, either. The 53-year-old played for one Hall of Famer in Louisville’s Denny Crum and coached under another in Calipari. He has professional basketball experience, having played four years in the NBA and several other years around the globe. He gets along well with the media, seems to always be smiling — you’d have a hard time finding someone who dislikes Kenny Payne — but can also get his point across with the players.
That’s why it’s difficult to understand why he isn’t sitting in a head coach’s chair somewhere. Maybe it’s his lack of previous head coaching experience. Maybe his salary and status at UK has allowed him to be picky. Maybe the right job in the right situation has yet to present itself.
Hopefully, it will. And soon. There are a lot of Kenny Payne supporters who would love to see just what KP could do.
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