John Clay

If it comes to it, can Kentucky again find a way to win without PJ?

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but a weekend watching PJ Washington wheel around the Jacksonville, Fla., arena on a scooter, his sprained left foot enclosed in a hard cast, did not lend itself to believing Kentucky’s sophomore forward will be available Friday night in Kansas City, Mo.

Nor does it help that Washington told CBS sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl — a $10.8 billion broadcast rights contract buys you a scoop or two — he heard something go “pop” in the SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee, followed by swelling and the “worst pain” of his young life.

Maybe I’m wrong. Hopefully I’m wrong. Dr. Dreamy I am not. And no one wants to see a star player miss out on the part of the college basketball season everyone plays for in the first place. Maybe the medical staff will cut the cast, PJ will grit his teeth, and the team’s leading scorer will make a Willis Reed-like return Friday night when Kentucky plays in the Midwest Region semifinals at the Sprint Center. (For you young readers, just Google “Willis Reed”.)

Until then, let’s bask in the fact the Cats found a way to get this far. With Washington sidelined, the Basketball Bennies among us assumed reserve big men EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards must pick up the baton. Instead, it was a pair of wingmen in Tyler Herro (lockdown defense) and Jemarl Baker (significant impact) who played key roles in helping Kentucky hold off Wofford 62-56 on Saturday.

And don’t forget the old coach, John “Just Roll Out The Balls” Calipari, who has now reached an NCAA regional semifinal in eight of the 10 years he’s been parking his SUV outside the Craft Center. No other coach can say that. Not Coach K. Not Roy Williams. Think about it, if not for Nerlens Noel’s torn ACL in 2013 and Cal friend/nemesis Tom Crean, who coached Indiana to a second-round win over Kentucky in 2016, it might be 10-for-10.

This year, Kentucky’s got some conference company. Shout out to the SEC and its 9-3 record after the tournament’s first two rounds. Scoot over Nick Saban. With Tennessee outlasting Iowa on Sunday, the league accounts for a quarter of the Sweet 16. There’s LSU in the East, Tennessee in the South, Kentucky and Auburn in the Midwest.

UK wasn’t even the only school to carry the league banner out of Jacksonville. With suspended coach Will Wade watching from an undisclosed location, Tigers point guard Tremont Waters made a strong move to the basket for a twisting layup in the final seconds to beat Maryland 69-67 and earn LSU a trip to Washington, D.C., which is currently more concerned with Mueller Madness than March Madness. (You can almost hear Wade now, “This FBI investigation is a witch hunt!”)

The biggest surprise was Auburn, not the fact Bruce Pearl’s merry band of unconscious shooters reached the Sweet 16, but the way they did it. The Tigers flat-out exposed Kansas, rolling to a ridiculous 51-25 halftime lead on the way to an 89-75 romp. Alert: Auburn might be the hottest team in the country, having won 10 straight.

As for Kentucky, Kansas City will be a tougher bone to chew, no matter the competition. The further you advance in the tournament, the more likely it is your weaknesses bubble to the surface. Losing Washington limits Calipari’s options when foul trouble rears its ugly head. And hidden by Saturday’s win was this stat: UK was just 7-for-27 from three-point land in the two games.

That’s picking nits, of course. What stands out is this team’s grit. When Reid Travis went down with a sprained knee, the Cats went 4-1, the lone loss coming in Knoxville when Tennessee had a score to settle. Without Washington, the Cats are 2-0, with the second win being a successful test of intestinal fortitude, as Joe B. Hall used to say.

Still, PJ’s left foot remains the wild card. Can Washington play? Would he even be effective? I’m skeptical, but also often wrong. A Basketball Bennie or a Dr. Dreamy, I am not.

Next game

Kentucky vs. Houston

What: NCAA Sweet 16

When: Friday, March 29

Time: 9:59 p.m. (ET)

Television: TBS

Where: Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

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