Although it had plenty of opportunity for clutch contributions, Kentucky’s 73-69 victory over Vermont on Sunday did not end the search for the all-important go-to guy.
“I was trying to figure out who we go to,” Coach John Calipari said in the postgame news conference. “And I don’t know yet. Do you know? If you know, write me a note.”
Surely more than a few UK fans might put PJ Washington’s name in Calipari’s suggestion box. Washington led UK with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
But Washington did not label himself UK’s go-to guy. When asked who that player might be, he said, “Honestly, I have no clue. It’s just whoever’s hot that game. We have a lot of guys who can make shots.”
Opinions differed on why Washington was that guy against Vermont. Quade Green said UK wanted to attack Vermont forward Anthony Lamb, a preseason pick to be the America East Conference’s player of the year. Lamb picked up two early fouls.
But Washington said it had to do with Vermont double-teaming the low post down the stretch.
“I was just finding the open guy and we were making shots,” he said.
Calipari gave Washington one of his signature compliments. “I thought PJ was a beast, finally,” the UK coach said.
Washington made little impact in Kentucky’s opening-night victory over Utah Valley. He had five points, three rebounds and four turnovers in 19 minutes. He said he wanted to make amends in UK’s second game.
“PJ played great,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said. “A great rebound at the end of the game — a two-handed rebound. We needed that. The talent he has, and his ability to make plays from the free-throw line and the post, and pass from there, is something we really need.”
Looking ahead to Tuesday’s game against Kansas might require a look back.
In the third game of the 2014-15 season, UK humiliated Kansas 72-40. It was the most lopsided defeat in Bill Self’s coaching career.
A reporter asked Self on a teleconference Sunday if he had used or would use that game as a teaching tool. He said he would not.
“After several years of seeing my psychiatrist, I’ve kind of gotten past this …,” he said. “That was a beatdown right from the beginning.”
Self saluted that UK team, which won its first 38 games.
“That was one of the best college basketball teams that we’ve seen in recent memory,” he said, “and was playing against a team that wasn’t very good that night. We weren’t the only team they did that to that year.”
Lamb wrapped his arms around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to try to prevent a fast-break layup. Gilgeous-Alexander made the shot and three-point play.
PJ Washington picked up a technical foul — and a lecture from Calipari — in the aftermath of the play.
“He was mad I pushed him,” Washington said, “but honestly, I didn’t think it was a technical foul. I really just shoved him a little bit.”
Calipari pointed out that time-and-score considerations should have caused Washington to back off. UK led 19-16 as Gilgeous-Alexander raced to the basket. A competitive game seemed in the offing.
“We’re trying to win a ball game,” Calipari said. “This is all stuff (about) winning basketball.”
For the first time, UK started the same five players in each half: Nick Richards, Hamidou Diallo, Gilgeous-Alexander, Washington and Green.
Down the stretch of a close game, the only change was Wenyen Gabriel in place of Richards. Calipari said he was looking for better defense against Vermont “bigs” who shot three-pointers.
Calipari cautioned against drawing any conclusions about lineups. “This is going to be game to game,” he said.
Vermont’s all-time record against current SEC teams fell to 0-15. … Vermont’s final Ratings Percentage Index last season was No. 45. For context, Michigan State was No. 47 and Georgia No. 54. Only five SEC teams had a better final RPI: Kentucky (No. 2), Florida (8), South Carolina (24), Arkansas (28) and Vanderbilt (42). Vermont has not beaten a ranked opponent since 2006 (77-63 over No. 14 Boston College on Nov. 13, 2006). The loss to UK was the Catamounts’ eighth in a row against ranked opponents.