Wildcats Face Tough Foe, Hard Questions, As Sweet Sixteen Looms

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This young Kentucky squad survived the opening rounds with a dominant win against Abilene Christian and a tough test from the Wofford Terriers.  While both were teams that Kentucky should have beaten, the young Wildcats did so without PJ Washington.  Washington suffered a foot sprain during the SEC Semifinal game against Tennessee.

Washington described his injury as a 10/10 on the pain scale while John Calipari constantly reminded restless Kentucky fans all tests came back negative. A dose of positivity came Wednesday as a video surfaced on Twitter from Calipari showing Washington walking limp free.

(PJ Washington, above, going up for a layup against Tennessee)

This was just what Kentucky fans needed to feel some optimism as another tough matchup looms Friday against the Houston Cougars.  Houston presents a lot of challenges for Kentucky, especially on defense.  Houston ranks 12th overall in defensive efficiency according to KenPom rankings.  The stingy Cougars rank first in field goal percentage defense (36.7 percent), second in three-point field goal percentage (27.6), and eighth in scoring defense (61.2 ppg).

That’s a tall task to ask of a young Kentucky squad without their leader and best player.  While basketball analysts such as Seth Greenberg expect Washington to return, if he happens to miss another game then Kentucky’s quest for their ninth title likely ends Friday.  Jay Bilas, when asked on ESPN, went so far as to say without Washington then Kentucky loses to Houston; period.

Freshman EJ Montgomery and sophomore Nick Richards have filled in admirably in Washington’s stead.  Kentucky still needs the scoring, rebounding, and floor stretching ability of Washington in order to contend with the Cougars’ stingy defense.

Wildcats Win If…

Assuming Washington returns, then the Wildcats win if they play their game and control the flow. Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson provide the dangerous on two punch threat to score from anywhere on the floor.  Most importantly, Ashton Hagans makes smart decisions with the ball and provides excellent defensive energy.

Kentucky doesn’t necessarily need Washington to play 40 minutes and be the beast on both ends of the floor he has been this season.  Kentucky just needs big plays in limited minutes and the leadership he provides.

On the defensive side of the ball, managing the ability Corey Davis Jr. to score in bunches and should be enough for Kentucky to escape with a win.  Kentucky ranks eighth overall in defensive efficiency and has drastically improved their perimeter defense as the season progresses.  Containing Davis is well within their grasp.

Predictions

The Wildcats are the more talented and more athletic team.  Their superior speed, size, and athleticism should be enough to overpower Houston down the stretch.  Kentucky wins 68-62.

As for Washington, right now he appears to be on track to lace ’em up Friday.  Go Cats!

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