The cast is off, as Kentucky Wildcats forward PJ Washington appears to be set to return (barring any setbacks that may occur with his foot).
The Wildcats managed to get past both of their opening and second round opponents without Washington, but should be grateful to have him back in time for the Sweet 16.
On Friday evening, Kentucky will lace up their Nike high-tops against the Houston Cougars, a non-power five school that has emerged as one of the better programs in the country. The Cougars probably aren’t a team the average fan is very familiar with, but are most certainly a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court.
Needless to say, Kentucky will have their hands full on Friday evening and will need to play their best game of the year in order to advance to the Elite Eight.
Washington’s return adds a viable post presence to Kentucky’s repertoire, which was desperately needed during stretches of their second round outing against Wofford. While graduate transfer Reid Travis has soundly carried his own weight (and then some), two is always better than one.
Speaking of offense, Kentucky will need to play their most efficient game of the season against Houston. The Cougars boast the top-overall field goal defense, top-overall three-point field goal defense rank, and the seventh-ranked scoring defense.
While some of the numbers could be considered inflated against lesser competition during the regular season, Houston is indeed “for real” and will more than pressure Kentucky. They’ve held their two tournament opponents to an average of 57 points per game while scoring an average of 79 PPG.
The Cougars don’t rank in the Top-50 when compiling blocks or steals, which reflects the fact that they simply force their opponents into difficult shots for the full 40-minute outing.
This will require another gem from Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans, who is coming off his best game in months. With Houston rostering just one player over 6-8, Kentucky’s size in the painted area should be a significant advantage in both scoring around the basket and in opening driving lanes for Hagans as well as other facilitators like Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro.
In terms of advanced analytics, these two teams are about as close as you’ll see in any Sweet 16 game. Kentucky currently ranks seventh overall in KenPom efficiency, thanks in large part to their eighth-ranked defense. The offense isn’t far behind at 11th overall, but it clearly wasn’t the same in Jacksonville when Washington wasn’t playing.
As for the Cougars, they rank 12th overall on the strength of their 12th-ranked defense. They’re actually the top team in the nation in terms of opponent effective field-goal percentage. They rank fifth in opponent two-point percentage and first in opponent three-point percentage.
The one knock on Houston is they have just one win over a KenPom top-25 team (LSU) and one away from their home arena, though they do sport victories over Oregon (29), Cincinnati twice (30) and UCF (34).
Kentucky certainly has some advantages in this game, but nothing comes easy during this point of the tournament. Friday night is fully-expected to be an all-out grind.
According to Pregame.com, the spread opened at -2 in favor of Kentucky and has since slightly moved in the Wildcats’ favor to -3. The game total between these two defensive units opened at 131.5 and has been bet to go over, now siding at 134.5.
54% of the Las Vegas tickets in regards to the spread are on Houston and the +3 points, generating 71% of the current cash. However, that should change as we get closer to tip-off.
66% of the Las Vegas tickets in regards to the game total are on the over, generating 79% of the current cash. This, too, should change as tip-off nears closer.
The staff at A Sea of Blue went 7/7 in picking the Wildcats to trump the Cougars and advance to the Elite Eight.
Bill Bender of SportingNews.com is also siding with Kentucky to advance past the Sweet 16.
Andy Katz of NCAA.com prematurely made his prediction before Washington’s cast came off, which led him to side with Houston on Friday evening. If Washington’s cast had been off when this prediction had been made, Katz gave the impression he would’ve predicted the Wildcats to advance instead.
Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader did in fact wait for the Washington news to break, allowing the local writer to properly analyze Friday night’s outing. Story is siding with the Wildcats, as he predicts they narrowly edge out the Cougars.
Five of CBS Sports’ seven experts are siding with Kentucky.
That leaves an overwhelming 14-3 edge in favor of Kentucky, but when you make it this far, you can never feel too comfortable about any matchup. This will be a war that is likely decided in the final minutes.
As for the computers, UK has a 63.1-percent chance to win, according to ESPN’s matchup predictor.
KenPom gives the Wildcats a 58-percent chance of winning and project a final score of 68-66.
TeamRankings projects a Kentucky win by a final score of 68-66.
numberFire’s computers actually predict a 68.4-68.3 win for Kentucky, which is a good indicator of how close of a matchup this should be.
Massey Ratings give Kentucky a mere 58% chance of winning and project a final score of 66-63.
Assuming Washington doesn’t have any pregame set-backs and is a full-go for Friday’s tip, Kentucky should claim victory when the final buzzer sounds. The Wildcats have the clear size advantage and are getting by far their most significant player back. Friday’s game will come down to execution, though, which is where head coach John Calipari will need to be stellar himself.
Calipari has made faulty decisions late in games throughout the season and, assuming Friday’s action comes down to the wire, he’ll need to be on his A-game during crunch time. Kentucky has had a week to prepare and should be fully healthy heading into a game they’re favored to win, leading to yet another chance for Kentucky to make a Final Four during Calipari’s tenure.
Final Score: Kentucky 69, Houston 65