After losing Reid Travis to a knee sprain against Missouri, Kentucky struggled down the stretch as the Tigers were able to take away a lot of Kentucky offense.
In addition, they also scored a lot of easier baskets to cut the Cats’ margin of victory to only eight. Without Travis, there were concerns that teams would easily be able to double PJ Washington on the post, get good looks from defensive breakdowns that he usually takes care of, or keep pace with Kentucky on the glass.
Even scarier was the thought of facing Auburn, a team that had just hit 17 threes on 51.5% shooting from deep against Arkansas in their last game and had taken Kentucky down to the wire in their earlier matchup this season. Without the leadership of Travis, though, Kentucky, specifically their bench bigs, made a statement against the Tigers with a 27-point home win.
This Wildcat team is truly showing why this is a player-led group. They understood the circumstance they were in and everyone stepped up across the board. On offense, Kentucky shot 54.5% from the field and 45.8% from three point range. PJ Washington, Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans combined for 55 points on 10-18 shooting from deep.
On the glass, Kentucky out-rebounded Auburn 43-24, highlighted by a career-high 17 rebounds for Keldon Johnson. On defense, the Cats held Auburn to their lowest point total of the season.
The Tigers shot only 32.8% from the field and 29.6% from three while holding Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, the Tiger’s dynamic duo that scored 45 points in the first game, to just 18 points. In every facet of the game, Kentucky stepped up to the plate without Travis.
The biggest question would be how well EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards would play in Reid’s absence. EJ has proven to be an energy big off the bench, but hasn’t had to do it consistently in extended minutes and a starting role.
After starting in all 37 of his games freshman season, John Calipari has spent most of the year trying to get Nick Richards going, as he may be the X-factor with his flashes of a really polished post game and his ability to block shots.
At first, PJ, EJ, and Nick all picked up a foul within their first few minutes. With a lot of pressure on each, especially Montgomery and Richards, they proved they could handle it. PJ continued to do his thing and make his case as one of the best players in the country with 24 points, but EJ and Nick were fantastic, even without big box score numbers.
EJ, who earned the start without Travis, finished with six points, seven rebounds, two steals and three blocks. In 20 minutes off the bench, Nick had four points, three rebounds and three blocks, as well.
The most important statistic, though, was after all three had a foul apiece in their opening moments, they finished with five fouls combined. To be successful without Reid Travis, these three bigs will have to continue to defend at a high level while staying out of foul trouble.
Not one player can replace the production, physicality, and guidance of a player of Reid Travis’ caliber. It’s only one game, but Kentucky responded and grew up today in a win without him. They’ll be without him again on Tuesday against Arkansas and likely for the next two, which will come on the road against Tennessee and Ole Miss.
That may all turn out perfectly fine now if the Wildcats continue to play like this. Even though I’m sure John Calipari and his team would love to have him out there, they'd prefer to have him healthy for the postseason.
Kentucky is cementing themselves as a #1 seed and a title contender under difficult circumstances. If they continue to learn and play well without their most experienced player and get contributions from across the board, the Wildcats will have a very good chance to win another SEC title and give Reid his homecoming in Minneapolis at the Final Four come NCAA Tournament time.