Near the end of his press conference after Kentucky’s 70-66 come-from-behind win over Arkansas on Tuesday night, John Calipari posed a question.
“Do we have a guy not playing?” asked the UK coach.
It was a rhetorical question. We knew the answer, as did the head coach. Reid Travis isn’t playing. The grad transfer from Stanford, a 6-foot-8 starting forward, hasn’t played since spraining his knee at Missouri on Feb. 19. So far, Travis has missed two games. So far, so good. Saturday, the Cats whipped Auburn 80-53. Tuesday, the Cats overcame a 15-point deficit to run down the Razorbacks.
This Saturday, however, presents a different scenario. Kentucky will visit Knoxville to face a Tennessee team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation when the Cats tagged the Vols with an 86-69 thumping at Rupp Arena on Feb. 16. The loss snapped a 19-game UT win streak and was the first in conference play for Rick Barnes’ club.
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Travis played an important role in the outcome. His offensive stats weren’t spectacular. Travis finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. His defense made a major impact. Charged with guarding reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, Travis held the junior forward in check.
Williams scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds. What mattered was how Williams got those points. He took a season-low four shots, making three. Two of those field goals were three-point makes. The third was a basket inside the paint with 1:11 left in the first half that cut UK’s lead to 33-29.
That’s it. A terrific operator on the low block who uses his body to get position and score around the rim, Williams was held to one inside bucket the entire game. That was his last made field goal. Second half, Williams missed his only attempt. All eight of his points came from the free throw line.
Afterward, Calipari claimed Travis worked so hard he was hooked up to an IV in the locker room. Travis later laughed off that claim. Still, there’s no doubt the UK forward used his body to push Williams farther out on the floor than the Tennessee star likes. Thus, the Vol was not his normal effective self. And Kentucky won the game.
Without Travis, can Saturday bring the same result? It’s a tougher ask. Tennessee will be gunning for revenge. At Rupp, Barnes said he did not even recognize his own “selfish” team. The Vols will want to make amends. And the Big Orange Nation, in full throat whenever Kentucky visits, will gladly add audible support.
There’s also the issue of Travis’ replacements. E.J Montgomery and Nick Richards have held down the fort. A 6-10 freshman, Montgomery has started the last two games. He had six points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes against Auburn. When he faltered against Arkansas, the 7-foot Richards picked up the slack with 15 rebounds and three blocked shots in 25 minutes.
Neither player is overly physical, however. At 6-7, 236 pounds, Williams is a load. after all. Calipari may elect to put Montgomery or Richards on Tennessee center Kyle Alexander, and have sophomore PJ Washington guard Williams. If so, that would be after crediting Washington’s 23-point game the first time around against Tennessee largely a product of not having the labor-intensified task of guarding Williams. After that first game, Cal said Washington needed to give Travis a hug.
There’s another factor in play here, as well. Often, the effect of a major absence doesn’t show up right away. It takes time to gauge the difference. UK so drubbed Auburn you barely missed Travis. Tuesday was a different story. You didn’t need Calipari’s mock question to remember the veteran forward wasn’t around.
Human nature says we’ll be asking the same thing Saturday. For Kentucky, winning at Tennessee will be tough enough. Not having Travis makes it tougher.