PJ Washington had a hard cast on his sprained left foot and was using a “knee scooter” to get around the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena.
So as Kentucky began its drive toward a ninth NCAA championship with its 2019 NCAA Tournament opener against Abilene Christian Thursday night, the Wildcats were essentially forced into a trade.
They gave up their leading scorer, leading rebounder and most experienced NCAA tourney veteran.
With Washington on the UK bench, they gained a high-decibel “assistant coach.”
“Oh my God, he didn’t stop talking the whole game,” UK reserve guard Jemarl Baker said of Washington.
Said UK point guard Ashton Hagans: “I heard (Washington) the whole time. That helped us out, too. He’s helping us see what we are not really seeing on the court.”
With Washington supplying both moral support and guidance, Midwest Region No. 2 seed Kentucky poleaxed No. 15 Abilene Christian 79-44.
UK post man Reid Travis outmuscled the less-physical Abilene Christian front-court players for 18 points and nine rebounds. Sleek but long Kentucky wings Keldon Johnson (6-foot-6) and Tyler Herro (6-5) played over the smaller ACU perimeter defenders to the tune of 25 and 14 points, respectively.
Kentucky’s 35-point win in its NCAA tourney debut stacked up favorably to the standard of recent champions. Over the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, the eventual champs (including the vacated 2013 title) won their opening tourney game by an average margin of 27.9 points.
“Kentucky,” Abilene Christian Coach Joe Golding said, “is all that.”
The Wildcats (28-6) will face Wofford (30-4) on Saturday for a trip to Kansas City next week for the round of 16.
After 34 games, the UK basketball season now comes down to one question: If Washington can’t go Saturday as the competition-level increases exponentially, can the remaining Cats get PJ to KC?
When asked what the status of Washington (14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds) was for Saturday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari sounded far from confident that the power forward would be returning.
Calipari said doctors ordered the cast placed on Washington’s sprained foot to speed the healing.
“Whether they’ll take it off (Friday) to check it, I don’t know,” Calipari said. “If they don’t, he won’t play Saturday. Then, they’ll probably try to take it off Tuesday or Wednesday to see how his foot feels.”
In the meantime, UK will have to beat a quality opponent in the round of 32 or the status of Washington’s foot for next week will be only a personal matter.
Even with Washington sidelined, it is still good to be Kentucky. The Wildcats have five other McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster, including backup big men Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.
Nevertheless, not having your best player, the guy who the offense runs through when the team is under stress, makes any team potentially vulnerable in the pressure cooker of the NCAA Tournament.
The good news, the Cats say, is that playing without Travis for five games late in the season when the graduate transfer from Stanford was out with a sprained knee prepared them for the task of having to win without Washington.
“We’ve been through this already with Reid being out,” Hagans said. “This is a great chance for Nick and EJ to show out.”
If Washington cannot go Saturday, “I think we’ll still be fine,” Herro said. “I still have a lot of confidence in our guys.”
With its season on the line, it would obviously be better to have Washington on the block calling for the ball and sweeping the defensive glass.
But if he can’t go, Kentucky will again have another “assistant coach” offering words from the bench.
“It’s good to have (Washington) on the bench with us,” Herro said. “It gives us another guy who has played in the (NCAA) tournament before. We know he has our back.”
Assuming Washington does not return Saturday, the task for the other Cats is to have his back, to keep the Kentucky season alive and get PJ to KC.
Said Hagans: “We’re just trying to survive until we can get (Washington) back.”