Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 79-44 win over Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Tournament:
1. John Calipari doesn’t think PJ Washington will play Saturday
In an interview with an ESPN reporter outside the winning locker room after the game, the Kentucky coach said, “I don’t think PJ will play Saturday, but it’s going to be a hard game either way.” Emphasis on “think.”
Calipari said the sophomore forward’s sprained foot was put in a cast instead of a boot because that would speed up healing. And they could cut the cast off on Friday and see if Washington could play Saturday against Wofford in the tournament’s second round. Yet, Calipari’s tone led you to believe that there’s a better chance that Washington sits Saturday with the hope that if UK advances to Kansas City the team’s leading scorer and rebounder would be available.
Thursday night, anyway, Washington did not look like someone who was on the cusp of playing. He entered the arena with one of those mobile scooters where your leg bends at the knee and doesn’t touch the floor. He did sit with the team during the game and did rise to his feet to cheer. And, according to his teammates, Washington did a lot of talking on the bench. He offered both encouragement and tips.
As far as how his teammates fared without him, the focus was on EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards, Cal’s big men off the bench. Montgomery got the start. He scored just three points but grabbed 11 rebounds. Richards picked up three fouls in the first half, and struggled to get his game going. He finally finished with eight points and four rebounds.
There was a scary moment with 1:56 left when Richards took a hard fall trying to rebound a missed Montgomery shot. The 6-foot-11 sophomore pounded the floor as his body remained twisted on the hardwood. He was back up after a few moments, however, and made one of two free throws. He pronounced himself just fine — “Landed on my shoulder and ribs,” he said — and said there were no ill effects from the tumble.
We’ll see what happens with Washington on Saturday, but the guess here is that he’s not playing.
2. Keldon Johnson picks up the scoring load
Losing Washington is not quite the same as when fellow big Reid Travis was out for five games after spraining his knee on Feb. 19. Much of what Travis does on the floor does not show up on the stat sheet. That’s not as true for Washington, who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. Without the Texas native in the lineup, the Cats have to find point production from other places, something that Montgomery and Richards aren’t as likely to provide.
Thursday, Johnson took up the challenge. After scoring 10 points in the first half, the freshman wing poured in 15 points in the second half to finish with a game high 25. He was 10-of-16 from the floor, including three-of-five from beyond the arc. He also played 30 minutes with just one turnover.
Since UK’s win over Ole Miss, Johnson has appeared to make a concerted effort to drive the ball to the basket. His success in that endeavor has forced defenders to back up just a bit, to try and play Johnson’s drive. That’s opened a tad more room for Johnson to get off his perimeter shot.
“Just shoot with confidence,” he said after Thursday’s win. “Don’t think about it, just hoop.”
Not bad advice for all the Cats in this tournament with or without Washington. Don’t even think about it, just hoop.
3. Despite the win, a gray cloud still hangs over Big Blue
Kentucky showed Thursday that even without Washington, it is still a very good team. And after the game, several players mentioned the fact that they had been through this before during the stretch without Travis. And though PJ and Reid are not quite the same player, there is some merit to having experience dealing with adversity.
But let’s be real here. Abilene Christian was a No. 15 seed. The Wildcats were winners of the Southland Conference, not the ACC or the Big 10 or another such league. And ACU was not a big team. It’s tallest starter was 6-7. It started a 5-7 guard. If this tournament is all about matchups, Kentucky was a bad matchup for Joe Golding’s team. Said the Abilene Christian coach: “Kentucky is all that.”
Well, not quite all that. Or not all it could be, not without Washington. And not to belabor the point, that’s the demarcation line of the Cats’ tournament chances in 2019. It’s that cast.
“Whether they’ll take it off tomorrow to check it, I don’t know,” said Calipari in the post-game press conference. “If they don’t, he won’t play Saturday, and then they’ll probably try to take it off Tuesday or Wednesday of next week to see how his foot feels.”
Outside the locker room, one-on-one with the ESPN reporter, Calipari also said, “We’re going to do what’s best for PJ.”