The Kentucky Wildcats have reached the program’s eighth Sweet 16 in the last 10 years with a hard-fought 62-56 victory over a tough Wofford Terriers squad Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville. They will now face the third-seeded Houston Cougars.
As the Cats move on, now would be a good time to take a quick look at their tournament run to date and identify some highs and lows for them in a little something we could call “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” We will start with the good stuff.
Cats’ Team Defense is Stifling- In both wins over Abilene Christian and Wofford, the Wildcat defense has been championship level holding them to 44 and 56 points, respectively. With Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, and Tyler Herro defending well on the perimeter and Nick Richards protecting the rim, the Cats have every opportunity to advance even if their offense is spotty.
Reid Travis is Having a Ball at the Dance- Travis has been the MVP of the tournament so far for the Cats. He followed up an 18 point, nine rebound performance against ACU with a 14 point, 11 rebound game against Wofford. Tell me this guy isn’t enjoying his NCAA tournament experience. Travis has been the most consistent Cat in the postseason with his ability to score on the block, rebound his position, and defend in the lane.
Baker Emerging- Against Wofford especially, sophomore guard Jemarl Baker Jr. has come up huge with his intensity and defense off the bench for the Cats. Along with the previously mentioned efforts of his perimeter mates, they held Terrier guard Fletcher Magee, the NCAA record holder for all-Time three-pointers made, to 0-12 from the line. 0-12. Digest that. If his effort continues, the Cats have the deepest set of guards in the tournament.
Surviving Without PJ- It sure has had its moments of angst, but the Cats have made it to the Sweet 16 without the production of its All-American forward PJ Washington. While Richards and EJ Montgomery have had their moments, the Cats have missed the production of Washington. With the cast on his foot likely to come off on Tuesday, Washington could be available to play in Kansas City. BBN is looking forward to it.
Finishing at the Rim- The Cats had many opportunities to finish either short shots or layups at the rim that they struggled with, especially against Wofford. As the games get bigger and offensive opportunities become more valuable by the possession, the Cats have to finish the short ones.
Foul Trouble- Fouls were almost the undoing of the Cats against the Terriers, with Montgomery and Johnson sitting for extended minutes because of foul trouble. The Cats play eight men (nine with Washington), so if a couple of players in the same position group get into foul trouble at the same time, life could get tough for the Cats.
Slow Starts- In both games, it took a little bit for the Cats to get going offensively. Fortunately, it didn’t cost UK too much. But a slow start against a team like Houston or possibly North Carolina down the road could make it tough on UK to advance.
PJ Being Hurt- The only true “ugly” I have is watching Washington being relegated to riding on a scooter and having to be a cheerleader for the opening two rounds. While I understand why, it’s just been hard to watch. Even PJ’s dad said “not playing hurts more than the foot.”
First, Travis’ injury cost him the final five regular-season games, and then this injury to Washington happens. Fortunately, Travis is back and playing well, and he helped carry Kentucky past the first weekend.
But for Kentucky to make it to Minneapolis, the Cats really need PJ. While not impossible, it’s a very long mountain to climb without their All-American forward.
Hopefully, Washington can come back the same way. Kudos to coach John Calipari and the UK sports medicine staff for the work they’ve done together to try and get these guys healthy.
So there you have it, a brief synopsis of the Cats’ tournament run to date. What are your good, bad, or ugly moments of the Cats run?