What was John Calipari’s message to his team?
In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky’s 62-56 win over Wofford in the NCAA Tournament:
1. Toughness as a virtue is not overrated
We hear it all the time to the point where it now sounds like a cliché or coach-speak. Coaches want their teams to be tough. John Calipari is no different. The Kentucky coach preaches it from the start of the season to the end of the season. He wants a tough, defensive-minded team that will battle.
Saturday was just that type of game — “It was a fun game to play in,” said UK center Nick Richards — made for that type of team, and UK passed the test with flying colors. Playing without PJ Washington, the Cats slugged it out with Wofford and escaped with a six-point win over the region’s highly dangerous No. 7 seed.
Defense made the difference. UK entered the game No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency, and the Cats held Wofford to 37.5 percent shooting. What sticks out, of course, is the fact that the Terriers made just eight of 27 three-point shots for 23.1 percent. This is a team that was second in the nation in three-point percentage at 41.6 percent.
Tyler Herro — “Tyler and Jemarl Baker,” pointed out Calipari — did a terrific job on Wofford star Fletcher Magee, who missed all 12 of his three-point attempts. “It’s incredibly disappointing,” said Magee afterward. “I feel like if I make three of those shots, we win the game. You know, a lot of them were good shots and just — they didn’t go in.”
But don’t overlook the job Kentucky did inside, as well. The Cats outscored Wofford 18-14. They held the Terriers’ Cameron Jackson to 11 points and six rebounds, while outrebounding Wofford 36-30. And they showed grit when they needed to show grit.
2. Imagine this team without Reid Travis
Calipari is not a big fan of the graduate transfer rule as a whole. He says it wrecks mid-level programs that lose stars to the higher-profile teams. He points to his former assistant Bruiser Flint losing his job at Drexel after losing star players to Power Five schools. And yet, where would UK be right night without its graduate transfer.
That would be Reid Travis, the wise old man of UK basketball. With Washington on the bench, his sprained foot in a cast, the former Stanford star needed to be even more of a factor on Saturday. And he was. Travis finished with a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. He was five of 10 from the floor and a perfect four of four at the foul line.
In just his fourth game back since missing five games with a sprained knee, Travis logged nearly 37 minutes. He dd not commit a single turnover and came up with a steal. And referring back to Takeaway No. 1, no one battles like Reid Travis.
3. Will PJ Washington be ready for Kansas City?
Color me skeptical. The sophomore was still using his scooter to get around on Saturday, his bent leg up off the ground so he wouldn’t put any weight on the cast that covers that sprained left foot. And Washington told CBS sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl he hurt the foot with two minutes to go in the SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee and he’s never felt such pain.
The apparent plan is for doctors to perhaps remove the cast on Tuesday or Wednesday and see where Washington is at that point. Medical people I’ve talked to, however, say it normally takes four to eight weeks for someone to recover from a foot sprain. The average amount for a person with a moderate foot sprain to return to 100 percent is five weeks.
Every injury is different, of course, and we’ve been kept in the dark about the specifics concerning Washington’s injury. I have no doubt he wants to play, even with an NBA future and the draft to think about. And perhaps the injury is not severe enough to keep him out of the Midwest semifinals or (should UK be so lucky) the finals. If he’s on the floor, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
And winning the next two without Washington will be more difficult than the last two. Neither Abilene Christian nor Wofford had the size to exploit Kentucky inside. Wofford was a perimeter-oriented team. The further Kentucky goes in the draw, the more likelihood the Cats will face a team with more than one or two bigs, who can play.
Then again, without Washington, plenty of people wondered if Kentucky could get this far.