Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over the Florida Gators

In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 66-57 win over Florida:

1. Kentucky proves again it has an elite defense

This was Mike White on Kentucky after the game:

“Defensively, wow,” said the Florida coach. “They’re elite.”

How so?

“I think they’ve got a combination of speed, quickness, toughness, strength,” White said. “They’ve got a bunch of girth, one through five, players that are playing out there. And, they’ve got obviously length and size and the way that that length and size is able to move laterally differentiates them from almost every defense in the country. A guy like PJ Washington that can switch on a point guard and stay in front of him, EJ Montgomery can switch on a point guard and stay in front of him, Nick Richards gets caught in some switches on some twos and some wings. And, their mobility to get to the rim in rotations, not only defensive rebounds, but blocked shots and altered shots.

“You know, we go three of 18 from the three and I’m not going to sit here and tell you there were a bunch of wide-open shots. We missed a bunch of altered shots and contested shots by all of those guys and they’ve got a bull, ball pressure guy, too, in Ashton Hagans.”

Consider that after Duke shot 54.4 percent in the season opener, no other team shot 50 percent against the Cats all regular season. UK held nine of its 18 SEC opponents under 40 percent from the floor.

Even in its three losses, Kentucky held the opponent under 50 percent. Alabama shot 45.8. LSU shot 42.9. Even in its 71-52 drubbing of the Cats in Knoxville, Tennessee shot 43.5 percent.

After Florida shot 48.1 percent from the floor in the first half Saturday, the Cats held the Gators to 40.1 percent shooting the second half. More importantly, Florida went a stretch of 6:04 without scoring a single point. That helped Kentucky turn a 44-42 lead into a 54-42 lead.

2. PJ Washington needs Reid Travis back

I wrote my game column on how, despite going 4-1 without Reid Travis, the Cats really need their 6-foot-8 senior forward back from his sprained knee for the postseason. And probably the first one to welcome back the graduate transfer from Stanford would be PJ Washington.

In UK’s first game without Travis, Washington did score 24 points in the 80-53 rout over visiting Auburn. That was the eighth time in 10 games that the sophomore had scored 20-or-more points in a game. The Texas native was playing by far the best basketball of his career.

In the last four games, all without Travis to help him down low, Washington has been held to a total of 50 points, an average of 12.8 per game. He scored just nine points against Arkansas, 13 each at Ole Miss and Tennessee, then 15 on Saturday against Florida in what was probably his final game at Rupp Arena.

Washington got into foul trouble on the road at Knoxville and Oxford. Two fouls had him sit for a significant portion of the first half. That wasn’t the case Saturday, however. And Washington scored just four points with two rebounds in 18 minutes before the break. He was two of six from the floor.

Second half, Washington got it going. With the game tied at 35, he scored seven straight points. His traditional three-point play with 12:45 left gave the Cats a 42-40 lead. And Kentucky continued on to the nine-point win.

Still, Washington was just six of 14 from the floor. In the last four games, he’s made just 16 of 38 shots. The numbers suggest he needs Travis back helping him in the paint.

3. A Super Saturday semifinal with Tennessee?

Tennessee’s 84-80 loss at Auburn on Saturday, coupled with UK’s win over Florida dropped the Vols to the No. 3 seed for the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville no matter what LSU did Saturday night against Vanderbilt. Kentucky is the No. 2 seed.

That means UK will play in the first game of the Friday night session at Bridgestone Arena. UK Coach John Calipari half-joked that he thanked his team for getting the earlier game, that the 60-year-old coach would have a hard time staying up for the late game Friday. Instead, as the No. 3 seed, Rick Barnes’ Vols are the ones who have to contend with that draw.

It also means that Round 3 of this year’s Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry could take pace in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday afternoon. With Reid Travis, UK whipped the Vols in Lexington on Feb. 16. Without Travis, UK got whipped by the Vols in Knoxville on March 2. We’ll see if Travis will be back for the rubber match.

We’ll also see if a third Kentucky-Tennessee game would have any effect on the seedings of the two teams by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on Sunday. Calipari said Saturday it would not, but the coach is already building his us-against-the-world NCAA Tourney mentality.

It hasn’t happened yet, of course. Both teams have to win quarterfinal games on Friday. But a third UK-UT game in Nashville would sure be fun.

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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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