Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s convincing win over Auburn

In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 80-53 trouncing of Auburn on Saturday in Rupp Arena:

1. PJ Washington should be a national player of the year candidate

That’s what Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said after the game. We’re not talking SEC Player of the Year where until recently Tennessee’s Grant Williams was considered the favorite. Not that Williams is out of the running or an undeserving winner. It’s just that Washington is on such a recent tear, he’s making a strong case for not just the SEC’s top spot but a place in the national honors conversation, as well.

Look at the numbers. Saturday was the sixth straight game in which the sophomore from Dallas has led the Cats in scoring. His 24 points marked the fifth game in UK’s last six, and eighth in the last 10 in which he’s scored 20 or more points.

Then there’s the three-point shooting. As a freshman, Washington made five of 21 three-point attempts all season. That’s right, all season. Saturday, he was five of eight from three-point land. He made three in the game’s first six minutes as UK jumped to a 13-6 lead on Auburn. For the season, Washington is now 25-for-57 from three-point range for 43.9 percent.

That’s a potent weapon for a muscular 6-foot-8 forward that’s also averaging eight rebounds per game. It’s also something that should elevate Washington’s status when the NBA Draft rolls around in June. Right now, however, his overall play, as well as his consistency, continues to improve. That makes Kentucky that much more dangerous come March, and PJ a candidate for POY honors.

2. UK’s three-point shooting was big, but not the be-all-end-all

It would be easy to chalk the Cats’ 27-point victory up to flat-out blistering three-point shooting. Auburn entered Rupp as the three-point experts, boasting the league’s best three-point shooting percentage and having made 17 of 33 three-pointers in a rout of Arkansas on Wednesday. The Tigers promptly went just 8-for-27 from three while the Cats were a torrid 11-for-24, including 9-for-17 in the first half.

Here’s the thing: These Cats don’t need sizzling shooting from three to deep-fry foes. They whipped South Carolina by 28 points (76-48) despite making just five of 19 three-point attempts for 26.3 percent. They made just five of 13 three-pointers during their 86-69 takedown of then No. 1-ranked Tennessee just last Saturday.

In fact, Calipari admitted to being a little nervous when he saw a stat sheet that showed 17 first half three-point attempts on Saturday. Yes, the coach was happy that his team had made nine of those. But he also owns the belief that his team is more likely to lose than win when it takes 30 three-point shots. And UK was on pace to take 34.

The Cats ended up taking just seven in the second half for 24 for the game. They made just two threes in the final 20 minutes. But that’s OK. The tone had been set. The lead was established. And for a coach who keeps preaching he knows his team, and this team can shoot, he had to be happy with the results.

3. In the SEC standings, it’s not lonely at the top

After LSU’s controversial 82-80 overtime win over visiting Tennessee — accomplished without point guard Tremont Waters, who missed the game with an undisclosed illness — and UK’s Saturday rout, first place in the conference is now shared among LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee at 12-2.

There are just two weeks and four games to go for each team. Kentucky must play Tennessee one more time next Saturday in Knoxville. LSU is through with both the Cats and Vols, having beaten both. If just for that, you have to like the Tigers’ chances at getting that top seed for the conference tournament.

You also have to like LSU’s remaining schedule. Will Wade’s club gets Texas A&M at home on Tuesday, travels to Alabama on Saturday, then Florida on March 6 before returning home to play Vanderbilt on March 9.

[John Calipari’s press conference after win over Auburn]

Tennessee is at Ole Miss on Wednesday. After playing host to Kentucky on Saturday, the Vols welcome Mississippi State to Knoxville on March 5. They finish the season against Bruce Pearl and Auburn on March 9.

Kentucky plays host to Arkansas in a 9 p.m. game on Tuesday. After the Saturday trip to Thompson-Boling, UK plays at Ole Miss on March 5. It finishes the season on March 9 at home against Florida.

LSU does face a disadvantage in one area. This is the first time in a long time the Tigers have been in the running for a conference crown this late in the season. This experienced Tennessee team tied for the conference title last season. And what Kentucky might lack in player experience, the Cats make up for in program history. If you are UK and it’s basketball, you always expect to be in the thick of it down the stretch.

The fun is just beginning.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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