Kentucky’s PJ Washington tells why team is skipping spring break
Even though Kentucky defeated Florida 66-57 on Saturday to keep alive the possibility of a Southeastern Conference championship, John Calipari came away wanting more. And it did not sound like another of his recitations from the Coaching 101 textbook on keeping the players forever striving.
“We’ve got to get some 40-minute, 35-minute games,” the UK coach said, meaning seamlessly good performances. “And we haven’t had them in the last couple weeks.”
Calipari volunteered a theory to explain Kentucky’s uneven play.
“Maybe it’s because Reid (Travis) is out,” he said before playfully reminding reporters that Travis had been sidelined since Feb. 19 because of a sprained knee. “You stick him in there, and maybe that lapse doesn’t happen. So, hopefully, in the tournament stuff, he’ll be ready.”
Calipari said he did not know when Travis would return. By contrast, the players spoke clearly about the impact Travis makes when healthy.
“He’s a huge part of our team,” said Tyler Herro, who led UK with 16 points. “Obviously, inside and leadership-wise. Obviously, we want him back. We don’t want to rush him back. It’s whatever is best for him. We’re going off whatever he says. And hopefully, sooner rather than later.”
Even without Travis, Kentucky outrebounded Florida 39-23. The Gators had only seven second-chance points.
“It’s scary to think that with their next opponent they could potentially be even better,” Florida Coach Michael White said. “But, with that said, the guys that are playing in his place, especially defensively on the glass, it just doesn’t seem to be a huge drop-off.”
After the game, Calipari suggested that whenever Travis returns, he’ll rejoin teammates eager to settle into that 40-minute groove. The UK coach said the players turned down his suggestion of going home for a few days before preparing for next week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville.
“I personally didn’t want to get on that long flight …,” said PJ Washington, who fell a rebound shy of a double-double (15 points and nine rebounds). “I feel like once I made that decision, everybody else pretty much made the same decision. Just to be here. I think that’s really a great mindset to stay here and work.”
Calipari said he suggested the players take a break because it has been a long season (made longer by the August exhibition games in the Bahamas) and he wants his team fresh mentally and physically going into the NCAA Tournament.
When asked about a break serving as a refresher, Washington said, “Nah. We’re trying to win the whole thing. So we can rest after that.”
The victory over Florida had a refreshing consequence. At least for Calipari. Rather than play the late game as the third seed Friday night in Nashville (likely starting time 10 p.m. ET or later), Kentucky improved to a two-seed and will open SEC Tournament play at 7 p.m. ET in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“I’m not the guy anymore that’s, like, at 9 and 10 at night, I’m dancing and moving,” said Calipari, who turned 60 on Feb. 10. “That time, I’m a little tired.”
Keldon Johnson, Herro and Washington (two freshmen and a sophomore) all dismissed the importance of avoiding the late start.
Against Florida in the regular-season finale, it was the first half that left Calipari and his players less than completely satisfied. Florida made nearly half its shots (13 of 27) and led 31-30 at the break. That marked the fourth straight game Kentucky trailed going into the second half.
“We had some mental lapses …,” Johnson said of the first half. “I think they got too many easy shots in the first half. Too many backdoors. Second-chance points.
“Not something we can’t fix. We just had to make a statement coming into the second half.”
As in the first game in Gainesville, Kentucky erased a halftime deficit and won. Florida’s shooting percentage dropped to 40.7 percent. The Gators made only one of nine three-point shots.
And even without Travis, Kentucky attacked the rim. Florida had no post offense. That combination of factors helped produce a 32-11 advantage in free throw attempts for Kentucky.
After the victory, Kentucky moved into a tie with Tennessee, a half-game behind LSU, which played winless Vanderbilt later Saturday night. Whether LSU won or lost, Kentucky was assured of being the two-seed in Nashville.
As he does annually, Calipari verbally flicked off the SEC Tournament like a pesky mosquito. He again said it provides no help in improving a team’s seeding for the all-important NCAA Tournament.
When a reporter asked Johnson if a Kentucky team searching for a 40-minute bravo performance was ready for the NCAA Tournament, he said, “Of course we’re ready.”
No. 6 Kentucky vs. TBA
What: SEC Tournament
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
TV: All games on SEC Network or ESPN
UK’s opener: The second-seeded Cats will play at 7 p.m. Friday on the SEC Network