As the Kentucky Wildcats opened their 2019 NCAA Tournament against Abilene Christian, no one expected them to lose to the opposing Wildcats.
However, PJ Washington sitting on Kentucky’s sideline did bring at least some cause for concern.
Aside from Marc Engel, no one commenting on this matchup considered there to be much competition. Head coach John Calipari and his troops made certain that held true, silencing Engel with a 79-44 statement win over the No. 15 seed.
No PJ, No Problem
PJ Washington’s absence was initially thought to be a significant concern for Wildcats in blue. However, a collective team effort carried the team’s weight in a tournament-opening win.
While the competition wasn’t stellar, Kentucky utilized their defense to lead to high-percentage shots for easy offense. Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis really stepped up and helped account for the loss of production from PJ being out, while Jemarl Baker, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery also gave UK solid minutes off the bench.
Though Washington probably will remain out at least one more round of the tournament, Kentucky coming together to produce at both ends of the court was certainly comforting. Heading into Saturday’s game, the team should still have much more momentum than originally anticipated.
Wildcats Plays Big
This year’s Kentucky team has been much better than past years when shooting from behind the arc. However, on Thursday evening, Kentucky exercised their size advantage when scoring the basketball.
Kentucky scored 40 points in the paint and 15 from the stripe, speaking to how aggressive the Wildcats were to pound the basketball in the painted area.
As they advance in the tournament, Kentucky’s two-point excellence should be their backbone against improved competition.
Thirteen first half points for the Wildcats in purple tells you all you need to know about Big Blue’s defense. Calipari’s Wildcats held Abilene Christian to just 32.1% shooting from the field and only 21.7% from behind the arc for the entire game, which is a good sign since UK will now face another hot three-point shooting team in Wofford on Saturday.
Even without Washington’s presence in the paint, Kentucky’s collective effort at both ends showed just how exceptional Calipari has been this season.
Going forward, it’s absolutely rational to expect the Wildcats’ defense to take a step back (considering improved competition). However, they should still be one of the better units at that end of the court in this tournament.
Frontcourt Shows Out
Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis combine for 43 points and 15 rebounds to power the Wildcats in their win. With Washington sidelined, the starting duo stepped up and shined in the spotlight with ease.
If Washington is forced to miss more time, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards could temporarily bolster the team’s front court production. Montgomery earned the start and Richards was the first off the bench to combine for 11 points and grab 14 rebounds in rotational minutes.
Heading into the second round of the “Big Dance,” Kentucky looks to face the winner of Seton Hall and Wofford on Saturday night. Tipoff has yet to be determined.