With PJ Washington wearing a protective boot, the Big Blue Nation should be holding its collective breath going into the NCAA Tournament, SEC Network analyst Jimmy Dykes said Tuesday.
Kentucky spokesman Eric Lindsey confirmed the social media buzz about Washington wearing the boot. It was for precautionary reasons, Lindsey texted. Washington’s condition may be updated Wednesday, the day before UK opens NCAA Tournament play against Abilene Christian.
“I think they can still make it out of the first weekend without a healthy PJ,” Dykes said before adding, “It’s going to be hard to make it out of the second weekend.”
Dykes said he saw the eventual national champion being a team on the one- and two-seed lines. Kentucky is a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region.
Dykes likened Washington sidelined or at less than 100 percent to such players as Duke’s Zion Williamson or Tennessee’s Grant Williams or Michigan State’s Cassius Winston being unable to play or hindered.
“You take the best player off any of those teams, that’s a game changer,” Dykes said.
To make his point, the SEC Network analyst noted what happened to Virginia in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
“They didn’t have De’Andre Hunter,” Dykes said, “and they got beat in a 1-16 matchup. There you go.”
This season has seen Washington become Exhibit A in an argument that a player can benefit from returning to college for another season after entering his name in the NBA Draft.
Earlier this month, he was named to the All-Southeastern Conference First Team and a Third-Team All-American by The Sporting News. He is a finalist for the Karl Malone Award, which goes to the nation’s best power forward, and the Wooden All-American Team.
UK Coach John Calipari has touted Washington’s importance to the team from the beginning of the season, when he suggested the player was capable of scoring 35 points and grabbing 20 rebounds on a regular basis. He’s averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Washington’s impact was memorably illustrated during Kentucky’s 80-76 victory at Ole Miss on March 5. For a second time in four days, Washington was limited by early foul trouble.
“I told him at halftime, ‘We’re throwing the ball to you every time,’” Calipari said in his postgame news conference. “‘So you be who you’re supposed to be.’ And he was.”
Washington scored 13 points in the final 15:14 and led Kentucky to the victory.
Afterward, Ole Miss Coach Kermit Davis Jr. saluted Washington by saying, “I told our young four-men, that’s who you need to really watch because that guy really plays within himself with great maturity.”
When Reid Travis sprained his right knee at Missouri on Feb. 19, Calipari put the onus on Washington. On his radio show show the next night, Calipari said, “I told PJ, ‘Now you’ve got to be that guy. We have no one else to go rough house.’”
Dykes cited Washington’s versatility as irreplaceable. “The other guys – EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards, Reid Travis – are kind of one-dimensional,” Dykes said. “And (Washington’s) versatility is as good as any small forward/power forward in this tournament.”
Washington has made a team-best 41.9 percent of his three-point shots (31 of 74) while also giving Kentucky a low-post presence to run its offense through.
“That whole offense at crunch time is predicated on PJ on the left block,” Dykes said. “Without him being there, that affects everybody else in the offense.”
UK’s NCAA Tournament opener
No. 2 seed Kentucky vs. No. 15 seed Abilene Christian
What: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional
When: 7:10 p.m. Thursday
Where: Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 27-6, Abilene Christian 27-6
Series: First meeting
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1