John Calipari’s message after Kentucky outclassed Monmouth 93-76 Saturday? Less is more.
The UK coach used those words to describe how the athletically-gifted Hamidou Diallo could benefit by simplifying his approach and keeping attempts at eye-catching highlights to a minimum.
But the less-is-more label also fit the star of stars in this game: PJ Washington. As the story was told afterward, he lost 15 pound in the previous 17 days. The lighter, fitter Washington was everywhere. His 20 points, which included his first three-point basket and purposeful post play, made him one of three UK players to score career highs.
His defense might have been even more impressive. When the “bigs” got in foul trouble, UK switched to a zone. At various times, Washington played in the center of the back line, at the top trying to thwart penetrating drives and on the left wing of the back line.
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“That’s who he is,” Calipari said of this versatility. “But plus 15 pounds, he can’t be that.”
Presumably, with his sense of humor kicking in, the UK coach added, “Maybe lose seven or eight more (pounds). Uh, you can get better.”
It might be a better story if Washington, who comes across as an agreeable sort, was highly motivated in losing the weight. But that’s not how the UK coach told it.
“The kid wasn’t happy, now,” Calipari said. “He was whining and complaining.”
Calipari insisted. “It was a demand,” he said. “It was not an ask.”
Washington, who joined Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (15 points) and Diallo (23 points) in enjoying career-high scoring, described the weight-loss plan with one word.
“Running,” he said before adding, “just running every day.”
Washington acknowledged the improvement that came with the loss of weight.
“It’s just a confidence booster,” he said. “I feel like I’m in shape, and my shots are falling down. I’m just playing better.”
In improving to 8-1, No. 8 Kentucky put on a showcase performance at a showcase venue (Madison Square Garden). This was especially true in a first half that saw UK make three-point shots, defend in man-to-man and zone, get its transition game going with help from Monmouth turnovers and lead 54-31 at the break.
Washington led UK’s highest first-half scoring of the season. He had 16 points, one shy of his previous career-high (17 against Vermont and UIC).
Washington made his first three-pointer of the season. He’d only taken one previously (against Fort Wayne). It was part of a 5-for-9 three-point shooting half for Kentucky. And there was almost one more. Quade Green got credit for a three-pointer earlier that upon later review was changed to a two. That shot put UK ahead for good at 6-5.
Kentucky shredded Monmouth’s defenses. The Hawks alternated between man-to-man, with UK making 60.7 percent of its shots in the first half.
Because its two big men, Nick Richards and Tai Wynyard, each picked up two fouls barely eight minutes into the game, Kentucky to zone with more than 11 minutes left in the half.
Except for a flurry of eight points in 69 seconds by leading scorer Micah Seaborn, Monmouth struggled to score.
After an 11-0 run put Kentucky ahead 21-8, the Cats used a later 13-0 breakout to establish a 47-22 comfy cushion.
Play got sloppy early in the second half as the teams combined for five turnovers in a span of about 30 seconds.
But, soon enough, Kentucky resumed exhibiting its superiority.
Washington, who equaled a career high of four blocks, played in the middle of the back line of the zone in the first half. In the second half, he moved to the perimeter (a 6-foot-7, maybe 220-pound guard?) and then to the wing.
This kind of versatility did not surprise Monmouth Coach King Rice. He coached Washington earlier this year at the preparatory workouts for the U.S. team that would play in an U19 tournament in Egypt. Calipari was the head coach.
Rice said Washington had “ridiculous talent.” And, the Monmouth coach added, “He picked the right place to go.”
As the rout of Monmouth suggested, Calipari and Washington can do more with less.
“I don’t know if he can play point guard,” Rice said of Washington. “But he can play ‘two,’ ‘three,’ ‘four’ and, in college, probably ‘five.’
“And he might be able to do point. I just haven’t watched him that much.”
Virginia Tech at No. 8 Kentucky
2 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2)