Here at the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, it’s all about what everybody’s wearing.
Kentucky forward PJ Washington is wearing a walking boot. Perhaps you’ve heard. UK says it’s more a precaution than a fashion statement. Not that we’ve actually seen the sophomore star. Washington was nowhere to be found at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on Wednesday. He wasn’t on the bus from the hotel. He wasn’t in the locker room when it opened for interviews. He wasn’t on the floor for the team’s public practice in advance of Thursday night’s opener against Abilene Christian.
“He sprained his foot in the Tennessee game,” revealed UK Coach John Calipari during his Wednesday press conference, referring back to the Cats’ loss in the SEC Tournament semifinals. “But we expect him to play.”
Meanwhile, Joe Golding is wearing his lucky suit, no matter what. Golding is the coach of Abilene Christian, UK’s first-round opponent Thursday. Abilene Christian had never qualified for the NCAA Tournament until AC, as it calls itself, defeated New Orleans to win the Southland Conference title.
“Unfortunately, I ripped my pants,” Golding said Wednesday of that final. “We’ve got one suit place in town, that’s it. One suit place, and they couldn’t get it done. I guess you have to alter and do some stuff. . . . So I’m coaching them all in my baby blue suit, and I’m going to have a hole in my (pants), man.”
Would that be Abilene Christian’s baby blue compared to Kentucky’s Big Blue? “They’re one of the bluest of the blue bloods,” said Abilene Christian guard Payten Ricks.
Even the bluest could use its leading scorer and rebounder, however. For the No. 2 seed Wildcats to beat the 15th-seed Wildcats shouldn’t require Washington’s services, but you worry about on down the line. Foot issues can linger. The Big Dance is not the ideal time for issues to linger.
Nor is it a good time to overlook anyone. Abilene Christian can make threes and turn you over. It’s 19th in the nation in three-point accuracy at 38.3 percent. It’s eighth in the nation in turnover percentage. And turnovers are what caused Kentucky to cough up that eight-point lead in the final three minutes last Saturday and head back to Lexington a day early.
“It was more of us,” said UK guard Ashton Hagans on Wednesday. “We were not as focused as we usually are. We had some bad turnovers that we can correct, but now it’s time to move on from that.”
Abilene Christian would prefer to move at a mid-tempo. The Wildcats played just one NCAA Tournament team all season, losing 82-48 on Dec. 15 to Texas Tech, now the No. 3 seed in the West.
“Watching the tape of that game we learned we can’t play up-and-down with those type of teams,” Ricks said. “We have to slow it down because they’re so much more athletic than us.”
Whether Kentucky will have all its athletes available was a question Washington’s teammates either couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. During the open locker room interview session, all claimed to not know the forward’s status. All said they hoped he would play. All said the team needs him. All said they would adjust to the situation, no matter the situation.
“It’s just another opportunity for Nick (Richards) and EJ (Montgomery) to step up and show what they can give,” Hagans said. “Just be ready to go out there and play.”
If Calipari was concerned, he didn’t show it. While yukking it up on ESPN the night of Selection Sunday — with framed jerseys of former Cats and current NBA stars behind him — the coach claimed he doesn’t watch much basketball on television at home. He repeated his preference for wilderness survival shows. That caused Seth Greenberg to tease Calipari about his family’s insistence there’s no way he could survive in the wild. Cal was reminded of that Wednesday.
“They truly don’t know me,” Calipari joked.
The bigger question is can Kentucky survive-and-advance without PJ Washington? Or will it have to?