UK Men's Basketball

UK-UT showdown features two Player of the Year candidates. See what makes them tick.

Is PJ Washington a national player of the year candidate?

After PJ Washington scored 24 points to lead Kentucky to an 80-53 win over his team, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said Washington is a national player of the year candidate. What did the UK sophomore think about that?
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After PJ Washington scored 24 points to lead Kentucky to an 80-53 win over his team, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said Washington is a national player of the year candidate. What did the UK sophomore think about that?

Of the many reasons to look forward to Kentucky’s game at Tennessee on Saturday, there’s this: Not one, but two Player of the Year candidates will be on the court at Thompson-Boling Arena.

For Tennessee forward Grant Williams, winning the 2019 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Award would be a re-election. He won the coaches’ vote last season.

“I love watching him play,” Florida Coach Mike White said earlier this season. “I don’t think there’s many guys in the country that possess the physical and mental toughness, skill level, determination and swagger that he possesses.”

It seems safe to say Kentucky forward PJ Washington has become one of those guys.

“Both have had fantastic seasons,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “Grant’s been more consistent over the past two years in his productivity. PJ, this year, probably in the last month and a half, has been as good as any big guy in the country.”

SEC Network analyst Jimmy Dykes echoed that sentiment, and then some.

“PJ has served notice in this league that, right now, he would be the SEC Player of the Year,” Dykes said this week.

Washington’s streak of games scoring double-digit points ended at 12 when he had nine points against Arkansas on Tuesday. In that span, he scored 20 or more points eight times.

After Washington made a career-high five three-pointers en route to 24 points against Auburn last weekend, Bruce Pearl said the UK sophomore forward had the muscle to dominate smaller opponents and the combination of skill and quickness to out-maneuver bigger opponents.

“National Player of the Year candidate, without question,” the Auburn coach said.

It’s debatable how much Washington and Williams will face each other one-on-one. Dykes expects Tennessee to double team Washington in the post area.

“None of those guys can handle PJ one-on-one,” he said, mentioning Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander and Williams by name. “I’d be shocked if Tennessee tries one-on-one coverage of PJ like they did in that first game.”

That first game two weekends ago saw Washington score 23 points in leading Kentucky to an 86-69 victory.

Williams got off only four shots in that game. Afterward, UK Coach John Calipari credited Reid Travis with supplying the muscle that prevented Williams from imposing his will on Kentucky.

It’s not known if Travis, who sprained his right knee at Missouri on Feb. 19, will play at Tennessee. After making the winning shot in Tennessee’s 73-71 victory at Ole Miss on Wednesday, Williams said he hoped “everybody’s healthy” and Travis would play.

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes credited Williams with not forcing up shots.

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“Grant doesn’t really care if he scores,” Barnes said. “He wants to win. He’ll be the playmaker.

“He came to me at one point, we weren’t very good on offense, (and said) ‘Coach, get me the ball, and I’ll get us some good shots.’ And that’s how he thinks. Often times, players get caught up in the game and they forget what should be happening. He kept playing.”

While Williams often makes passes from the top of the key, Washington has been an adept passer post-to-post and out of double teams.

“Williams got bothered by Kentucky’s length in the first game,” Bilas said. “PJ was able to post up, and if he didn’t get doubled, he just turned and shot right over people.”

To compensate for his relative lack of size, the 6-foot-7 Williams depends on guile, strength and willpower.

“He’s got great hands,” Bilas said. “He catches everything. He finishes everything. He’s real strong and he’s very skilled. His left hand is fantastic.”

Of course, Washington and Williams have a history. The first of three Kentucky-Tennessee games last season was especially memorable. Washington clearly outplayed Williams in the first half. Then Washington went to the bench with cramps and Tennessee rallied to a 76-65 victory.

Afterward, Williams made a stunning confession: that Washington got “in my head” early in the game.

Bilas, who coached Williams for a time in AAU basketball, was not surprised.

“He’s a really good kid,” Bilas said. “Like, he will say whatever is on his mind. So I don’t think that means anything. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t make excuses. . . . He gets beat, he’ll say he got beat. ‘And here’s how I got beat.’”

Washington and Williams are considered exemplary off the court as well as on. Williams chose Tennessee over Yale, Harvard and Princeton. This initially disappointed his mother, Teresa Johnson, who is an engineer at NASA. He studied how to play a half-dozen musical instruments and was a noted chess player.

“I would say Cal would say, ‘PJ represents what we want our program to stand for,’” Dykes said. “And on the flip side, Rick Barnes would say Grant Williams stands for ‘How we build our program.’

“They’re two terrific individuals that I hope have great success not only for the rest of this year, but in their future. They both deserve it.”

Next game

No. 4 Kentucky at No. 7 Tennessee

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

TV: CBS-27

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Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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