Kentucky is used to being everyone’s Super Bowl
Kentucky knows this spot well. Too well. Been here a million times. You know, the Cats are everybody’s Super Bowl. David vs. Goliath and all that. Cast so often as the evil stepmother, Kentucky has faced more than its fair share of NCAA Tournament Cinderellas.
Only this time, it could be different. Or at least it has the feel of something different, thanks to something important that the Big Dog is likely not to have and something the Little Dog will when No. 2 seed Kentucky faces No. 7 seed Wofford on Saturday in a round-of-32 game of the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region at VyStar Memorial Arena.
Kentucky is likely to be without PJ Washington, its leading scorer and rebounder who has been relegated to traveling around Jacksonville on a scooter, his sprained foot wrapped in a hard cast. During his turn before the media Friday, UK Coach John Calipari stopped just short of definitively ruling Washington out Saturday, but said “I can’t see him playing.”
Washington’s services weren’t required for the Cats to crush No. 15 seed Abilene Christian 79-44 in a round-of-64 walkover Thursday night. (The poor Southland Conference champions managed just 13 first-half points.) But Wofford isn’t Abilene Christian. And the Terriers don’t really fit the small-school Cinderella label.
“I hate it,” Wofford Coach Mike Young said flatly on Friday.
For starters, the Terriers are a No. 7 seed. Those guys are dangerous. And these Terriers have won 21 straight games. They are No. 13 in the NCAA’s NET rankings (UK is No. 6). Up a point on No. 10 seed Seton Hall late Thursday night, Wofford ripped off 17 straight points on the way to an 84-68 victory over the same Pirates who beat Kentucky in December. And Wofford won’t be intimidated. It played no less than four NCAA Tournament teams — North Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi State and Kansas — during the regular season. It beat South Carolina by 20 points in Columbia. (Gulp.)
You’re going to hear all about the Terriers’ terrific three-point shooting. Believe it. Contortionist Fletcher Magee is the sport’s all-time leading three-point shooter. His running mate Nathan Hoover shoots a higher percentage from the behind the arc. The Terriers were 13-of-28 from three in taking down Seton Hall.
What you won’t hear as much about is Wofford’s Cameron Jackson, a First Team All-Southern Conference but still highly underrated center. “He’s their most valuable player,” former UK star and current Samford coach Scott Padgett told WDRB’s Rick Bozich.
If you go by the metric called “player efficiency ratings” Jackson’s number of 31.5 is third nationally, trailing only Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke (37.2) and — drum roll, please — Duke’s Zion Williamson (42.0). “Cam is unstoppable on the block,” said Hoover on Friday.
Not that UK’s Nick Richards was buying any of that nonsense. “We’re just better than all of them,” the sophomore center pronounced right there on the podium right in front of the media gathering.
“Nick needs to go through media training again,” said teammate Immanuel Quickley.
“What are you doing, Nick?” said Calipari later when referencing Richards’ bulletin board material. “I love his confidence. Now I want to watch you do it, if you think that.”
Not to prolong the point, but can the Cats do it without PJ? Maybe Washington pulls out a sharp knife, cuts off the cast, and leads Kentucky to Kansas City. I doubt it. Reading between the lines, seems the Big Blue blueprint is to make it through this weekend and allow Washington more time to speed-heal his way into possibly being ready for a Sweet 16 appearance. Possibly.
Says here that thanks to length and defense, Kentucky squeaks by, but it won’t be easy. Yes, the Cats know the spot of being everybody’s Super Bowl — “Every small school wants to prove they can belong and we can play with these big teams,” said Wofford’s Tray Hollowell, a Hopkinsville native. “We know we can play with these guys.” — but every Super Bowl is just a little bit different.
Said Young, “Let it rip.”