John Clay

For Kentucky, one player’s injury could be a duo’s opportunity

There are going to be bumps in the road. Such is the way of sports. And life.

On a Saturday, you are the Kentucky Wildcats, dominating top-ranked Tennessee 86-69 in front of an overflow crowd in your home building. Informed observers are touting you as a national title contender. All is right with the world.

Three days later, you’re stuck in Columbia, Mo., holding your breath. You survived a slog of a Tuesday night game against the host Missouri Tigers, winning 66-58, but in the process your starting senior forward, Reid Travis, limped to the locker room in the second half with an apparent injury.

In-game report: Sprained right knee.

Postgame report: Travis will undergo an MRI when the team returns to Lexington, after being snowed in on Tuesday.

Message from John Calipari: Guys are going have to step up.

“Have at it,” said the Kentucky coach.

Calipari also mentioned Travis could be out a week or two. That wasn’t a medical diagnosis, however, as much as a hypothetical, with the coach saying that if the 6-foot-8 forward from Minneapolis is “out a week or two” then that creates an opportunity for one of UK’s “bigs” off the bench to make an important contribution.

That would be Nick Richards, the 6-11 sophomore from Jamaica, and EJ Montgomery, the 6-10 freshman from Fort Pierce, Fla. Both have suffered ups and downs during the season, backing up Travis and sophomore PJ Washington. For the most part, their play has been restricted to short bursts, some more productive than others.

Take Tuesday night. Richards turned in an effective first half, scoring seven points and grabbing four rebounds in seven minutes on the floor as the Cats built a 41-23 lead. The center played six minutes the second half, but failed to add to those totals. Meanwhile, Montgomery had just one rebound in 16 his minutes. He did not score. He was called for four fouls.

Just four games ago, Montgomery had a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds in UK’s 76-48 win over South Carolina. He had six points and four rebounds in the big victory over Tennessee. But against Missouri, a physical team with a slowdown style, the UK freshman found himself in foul trouble.

As for Richards, Calipari has repeatedly said that for the Cats to be their best heading into March, they need Richards to be his best. As a rim-protector on defense and a possible post presence on offense, Richards can provide skills that others may lack. Three weeks ago at Vanderbilt, he scored 14 points and blocked four shots. In the six games since, however, he’s scored 17 points. In that six-game stretch, he’s grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked just two shots. He’s played 46 minutes.

If Travis must miss some time, that will change. Either Richards or Montgomery is likely to start, teaming in the front court with the suddenly consistent Washington. The sophomore scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds on Tuesday. Over his last nine games, the Texas native is averaging 20.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. “PJ is playing at a very high level,” said Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin.

And yet even Washington doesn’t possess Travis’ skill set. The transfer from Stanford hasn’t matched the numbers he put up in the Pac-12 before coming to Kentucky, but Travis has made a major impact on the team with his intensity, physical play and board work. He’s been a glue guy for a team that has incorporated Calipari’s usual group of talented freshmen with a sprinkling of holdovers.

In the short term, a Travis absence would not be a good thing. The Cats make their visit to Knoxville for the rematch with Tennessee a week from this Saturday. In the long run, however, there could be a silver lining. If Montgomery or Richards, or both, can fill the bill, that would only add to the team’s confidence heading into the month that counts.

“That’s why we coach every kid like he’s a starter,” Calipari said. “Let’s see how you do now.”

Next game

Auburn at No. 4 Kentucky

When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: CBS-27

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
Support my work with a digital subscription