UK Men's Basketball

Blue bloods? ‘Vulnerable’ Kentucky faces ‘junk-yard dog’ Kansas.

PJ Washington and the great motor mystery

Kentucky basketball sophomore PJ Washington scored 21 points to lead 8th-ranked UK to a 76-55 victory over No. 22 Mississippi State on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, at Rupp Arena. Still, Coach John Calipari says he wants more from Washington.
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Kentucky basketball sophomore PJ Washington scored 21 points to lead 8th-ranked UK to a 76-55 victory over No. 22 Mississippi State on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, at Rupp Arena. Still, Coach John Calipari says he wants more from Washington.

Kentucky will have four big men at its disposal Saturday night in Rupp Arena. Kansas lost its center to a season-ending injury on Dec. 4.

Draw your own conclusions about how this disparity in front-line size and depth might impact the marquee game in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

On a Big 12 teleconference Thursday, Kansas Coach Bill Self spoke plainly about the loss of 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to an ankle injury. The Jayhawks had a 6-0 record with Azubuike in the rotation. Three of the victories came against teams currently in the top 12 of The Associated Press poll: No. 1 Tennessee, No. 5 Michigan and No. 12 Marquette.

Since the injury, Kansas is 10-3.

“We’ve gotten very small,” Self said. “Probably as small as we’ve ever played. So it certainly has an impact. Going against Kentucky’s ‘bigs,’ it creates a situation where a vast majority of the time you’re going to have a 6-4 guy guarding one of their ‘bigs’ a lot.”

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In its last game, Kansas started one player taller than 6-foot-5. That was Dedric Lawson, a 6-9 transfer from Memphis. He had 29 points and 15 rebounds in an 80-76 victory over Iowa State on Monday.

Two players taller than 6-5 came off the bench against Iowa State. David McCormack, a 6-10 freshman, played two scoreless minutes. K.J. Lawson, a 6-8 third-year sophomore, scored two points in nine minutes.

“I like our personnel,” Self said. “There’s no question about it. This is who we have. We’re different. We’re not above the rim. . . . We have to be a junkyard dog-type team. I still think we can get a lot better at that.”

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s front line includes four “bigs:” PJ Washington, Reid Travis, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.

“It’s incredibly luxurious,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said of UK being four deep. He saw this first hand in Kentucky’s 76-55 victory over State on Tuesday. Travis struggled on offense (1-for-6shooting, three turnovers), Richards and Montgomery combined for 13 points and eight rebounds.

Of UK’s depth, Howland said, “It keeps those two starters fresh.”

Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy, whose team last season had several big men contributing, noted other advantages. Potential foul trouble is less of a concern. “And you can hold them accountable,” he said. “If somebody’s not playing well, you can put them on the bench real fast, and put somebody else in. It just makes practice better, and it makes the team better.”

Not wanting to crow before the egg is laid, UK Coach John Calipari steered far away from proclaiming his team on a roll. This despite UK riding a five-game winning streak. Except for a one-point overtime loss to Seton Hall and a two-point loss at Alabama when Tyler Herro’s heave at the buzzer missed, the Cats (15-3) would be on a 17-game winning streak.

Yet, Calipari said, “We’re vulnerable.”

Although Kentucky and Kansas rank one-two in all-time victories, Calipari and Self made the game sound like something less than a battle of the bluest of college basketball blue bloods

But the UK coach acknowledged the benefit of having four capable big men.

“It’s a big deal for us,” he said. “And all of them are getting better. They’re all taking on roles.”

Calipari said that each of Kentucky’s four “bigs” have accepted how fluid the depth chart can be. Starters and backups can change roles depending on how particular players are performing.

“It’s worked out well,” Calipari said. “Some games we need length. Other games we need straight brute force. We have a little of both.”

Next game

No. 9 Kansas at No. 8 Kentucky

What: SEC/Big East Challenge

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN

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