Kentucky was able to advance thanks to a 35-point win over Abilene Christian and a narrow six-point victory over Wofford.
It is the third straight season the Wildcats have reached the Sweet 16. They are 1-1 in their past two Sweet 16 matchups.
As for Houston, they are appearing in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 35 years (1984). The Cougars come into the matchup with Kentucky with more wins than anyone in the country (33) and are fresh off wins over Georgia State and Ohio State in the first two rounds of the tournament.
When these two teams matchup, Kentucky will have a clear height advantage, as Houston doesn’t start anyone above 6-8. However, the Cougars are very athletic and play more scrappy than the Wildcats, which could lead to some significant challenges for John Calipari’s team.
Heading into Friday night, the biggest question surrounding the game is the status of PJ Washington. The Wildcats top player missed the first two rounds of the tournament but had his hard cast removed and recorded a video of himself walking.
Today, Washington was able to get some light practice work in, but it sounds like he’ll be on a minutes restriction if he does suit up Friday.
Today, Calipari, Washington, Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson stepped to the podium while the rest of the team spoke in the locker room to preview Houston.
Here’s a summary of what they had to say via the NCAA:
Q. PJ, let’s start with the big one. Are you going to play tomorrow and kind of what is your status?
PJ WASHINGTON: I’m trying to get back to play, but right now it’s up in the air.
Q. PJ, what has the last couple weeks been like? And I know you’re going to be bombarded with a lot of these questions, but what has the last week and a half been for you mentally and physically?
PJ WASHINGTON: I’m in a good place. I went to get checked out. The doctor said pretty much some good things. So I’m happy where I’m at, and I’m just trying to get better.
Q. I have a question for you Reid. So Kentucky is not a program known for having a lot of older players. Given that you’re a grad on the team, I wanted to know a little bit about what it’s like to have a little bit more of a leadership role, given your age? But this is your first tournament, what has that experience been like so far?
REID TRAVIS: It’s been a great experience so far. That was one of the things that attracted me to Kentucky was there wasn’t a lot of older guys. I felt it would be nice for me to have a younger team and kind of have my leadership presence and kind of just join that. It’s been great so far to learn from the younger guys and trying to use my lived experience through college basketball to be a leader and enjoy every game we’ve been playing so far in the tournament.
Q. PJ, are you going to try to practice today? And just are you able to walk then just in shoes? And I guess, how would you describe, I guess, your gait? Are you able to move around?
PJ WASHINGTON: I walked over here. That’s good. I don’t know yet. I’m thinking of giving it a go. It’s just in the air, like I said earlier.
Q. You posted that yesterday on Twitter of you kind of walking. Is that when you got the cast off yesterday? How does it feel in?
PJ WASHINGTON: That was the day after I got the cast off. It’s good. I feel good. It’s just about going out there and seeing if I can do stuff on the court.
Q. One more. Will you just warm up before the game and see if you can go and how much pain is there?
PJ WASHINGTON: I don’t know yet. I don’t know if -- I been haven’t practicing. I’ve been -- I haven’t put any pressure on it yet. I’ll go out there and see what I can do.
Q. Reid, just you guys obviously got through the first two rounds without PJ. But could you just describe how different a team are you without him in the lineup?
REID TRAVIS: Yeah, we’re very different team without him in the lineup. Obviously just look at his production, his leadership, the things that he does on the court for us, the way he can pass. He makes a lot of us a lot better.
When he’s in the game, just the rotations and the way that we move the ball, and defensively, he makes our team a lot better. Obviously we can get him back, I feel like we’ll be a lot stronger team.
Q. Reid, what have you guys seen out of Houston when you watched the video? They said they hadn’t looked at you guys until a couple days ago. What do you see out of them?
REID TRAVIS: The biggest thing is just the physicality. A big thing we’ve been working on in practice is just rebounding, just trying to box out. They’re a team that when they do shoot it, they’re all trying to chase it and get off and rebound and put it back. So for us a big part of the game plan is just finishing out possessions with a rebound and just really trying to match their physicality.
KELDON JOHNSON: Definitely agree with everything he said. Just being physical and just matching the intensity. We have to come out and do what we do and just play harder than them.
Q. Keldon, it hadn’t been too long ago that you were being recruited by Coach Cal. And I’m sure one of his biggest pitches was that he was going to make you a better player. How has coming to the University of Kentucky made you a better player this past year?
KELDON JOHNSON: Just -- I mean, I stay in the gym with the coaches. I’m playing against great players everyday, and they just push me and the coaches stay on me regardless of the day. They always on me to push me to be a better -- to be a better me each and every day. That’s basically what it is.
Q. Reid, I’ll follow-up on that question with you. How has specifically your relationship with Coach Cal made you a better player here at the University of Kentucky?
REID TRAVIS: Yeah. I’d say the biggest thing I take away is just the little nuances that he’s taught me in my game, that I can affect the game without scoring or just rebounding as far as blocking shots, defending multiple positions. These are all things I didn’t necessarily think about too much in my previous years in college, and when I got here, it was a big emphasis to him is that it’s not always about trying to throw up the biggest numbers but you can affect the game in so many ways. That starts with changing your body, changing the way you move. Those the are biggest things I changed in my game are the little things that don’t necessarily show up.
Q. Keldon, when you guys played Wofford, you guys mentioned they were a very good 3-point shooting team. Houston doesn’t appear to shoot it as well, but they’re tenacious defensively. What’s the give and take between Wofford and Houston guard-wise?
KELDON JOHNSON: Two different teams. We’ve got to respect whoever we have in front of us. We just going to take the game plan, go with it accordingly, and just go out there and do what we do.
THE MODERATOR: Anything else for the gentlemen from Kentucky?
Okay. Gentlemen, thank you very much and best of luck tomorrow.
Coach of Kentucky is here, John Calipari. We’re going to ask him to make a statement on his team being here in Kansas City and even then we’ll go to questions.
JOHN CALIPARI: I just want to say, is PJ playing? Does anybody know here whether he’s playing? I don’t know. So we will see. That’s my statement. No questions?
THE MODERATOR: Very smart class.
Q. Coach, there has been so much talked about PJ. What has the last several days been like with getting the cast off, mentally and physically for him?
JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know. He was up here. I imagine you asked him, but somebody said -- he didn’t practice yesterday and they said, “Did you see him?”
Yeah, I saw him sitting on the sideline.
I have not seen him -- he’s been on an ultra, ultra G, which takes his weight, lightens him up so he can get used to running.
Thank goodness the game is at 9:00. We have more time. It’s the first time I’ll ever say this. I wish it was at 10:00. But, you know, greatest thing for him is the doc said that you can’t hurt yourself. And if that were the case, I wouldn’t let him play.
Doc said, “You’re going to be in pain after the game if you do play, but you know how much pain can you deal with.”
He wants to play. Now, it’s can he play? We don’t know. If anybody is guessing, you know, we just don’t know yet.
Q. Following up on that, what will go into your decision about whether he plays or not, and how different of a team are you with PJ versus without?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, it’s been awhile since we had PJ and Reid, like Reid was out for almost three weeks. And then we played with Reid and he together for two games, and then PJ has been out for literally two weeks.
So, it would be nice to have a full team, but this is what’s happened. Fate has intervened sometimes in our lives, some of it good and some of it bad. And then you look at it thinking this is bad, but it gave EJ and Nick a chance. When PJ went down, it gave us a chance to put Keldon at the 4 and it gave Jemarl Baker a chance to play.
So, in the end of the day, maybe it helped us. But, we’re not -- if anybody in this tournament right now takes their best player off the court, they’re not going to be as good. I can spin it, you can spin it, you can say well, take your best player off the court and let’s play basketball. Like -- we’re not as good without him. There’s no question.
Q. John, do you think he’ll practice today? Is that the plan or --
JOHN CALIPARI: I didn’t ask him. I kind of stay out of these decisions. Unless the doctor tells me he can hurt himself, then he wouldn’t have a decision to make. If this one -- you ask me how will I make a decision? Probably be him. If he goes in and he’s 80 percent, then I won’t play him. If he goes in, he plays well and he says “sub me,” I’ll sub him. I’m ready to go. I’ll put him back in.
Q. You mentioned a little bit about how you’ve been playing with a lineup in the absence of PJ and Reid over past few weeks. Now that Reid is back, how has he and other members of the team stepped up during the first two games of the tournament?
JOHN CALIPARI: Part of our deal was to let’s survive so PJ gets a chance to play. This is an important time for all these kids. Like I don’t take that lightly, and I understand and respect these kids. What they go through in this tournament at this time with the social media, with what’s at stake for them individually, the clutter they hear.
This stuff is hard. And so we’re out there. The last two games we started four freshmen and made it even tougher. But, you know, I think that they survived, and now he gets a chance to perform.
Because he hadn’t played for a couple weeks, people may forget how good he is. He’s an All American. But in the interim Reid has done well. Now Reid has stepped up his game and the physicalness that he plays with. And EJ played 11 rebounds one game, and Nick is blocking shots. Jemarl Baker comes in and plays his butt off. All of a sudden, you know, we become a little different.
Let me just say this: Knowing Kelvin for as long as I have, what he’s done with the program, the culture that he’s created, if you don’t respect -- one, his plays are really good. Obviously he can coach. They defend, they rebound, they share, they can shoot 3s. If you don’t respect them, you’re losing whether it’s us or anybody else.
I’m just -- I’m amazed. 10, 12, 13 years ago, we were going to Houston to play, to see it where it is now, now it’s incredible what they’ve done. They’re players. They’re not afraid. They have a swagger about them. They play with unbelievable energy. They defend like crazy and they rebound every basketball they attempt to rebound. So, it’s going to be a hard game for us to win with PJ or without PJ.
Q. How much of this is a balancing between knowing he probably does want to play and wanting to win this game and also knowing if you’re going to make it further, you probably want or need him to be healthy?
JOHN CALIPARI: If he’s at 80 percent and I see it, I probably -- I’ll say, “hey, man, let’s just wait. We’ll figure out if we can do this without you.”
If he’s terrific, I mean what I did with Reid, I asked Reid, “How many minutes did I play you when you came back?” He played 15, 18 minutes.
If PJ plays more than that, I would be stunned, surprised. If he doesn’t play at all, I would not be surprised. So, we’ll just laugh to see.
Q. You’re one of four SEC teams that made it to the Sweet 16. How much does that speak to kind of competitiveness in the conference?
JOHN CALIPARI: Let me go back to this, too. Vanderbilt lost their best player who they were building around, is going to be a top 7, 8, 10 pick in the draft.
Missouri lost their big guy early in the year. He would have also been a Top 10, 12 pick in the draft.
Those are two teams that slid because of those injuries. When you talk about that on top of the seven teams that made it and maybe one more could have, every game was a war. There were no easy games in our league for any team, which is why we benefited now.
I like to say that when you’re at Kentucky, a lot of type times teams have nothing to lose when they play you, not a thing to lose. At our place, they don’t think -- nothing to lose.
The greatest thing -- we have everything to lose. If we lose a game, oh, my goodness. We lose a home game, they got a list of who the next coach is going to be. It’s one of these six guys.
So, I say that in that in this tournament, what’s good, has something to lose. We have nothing -- oh, yeah, you do. Your season ends.
We’re all in the same boat. You know, hopefully, again, our team understands how good, how well coached, how balanced, how deep Houston is, or it will be us going home.
THE MODERATOR: We are halfway through the session.
Q. This is your 10th year as head --
JOHN CALIPARI: 70. The dog years at Kentucky. Seven times ten is 70.
Q. During that time you’ve had eight Sweet 16s. I guess that’s 56 Sweet 16s. Not bad. But you’ve talked throughout this year about players coming to Kentucky and getting better.I assume that you think you’re a better coach now than when you first appeared on campus. How has being the head coach at the University of Kentucky made you a better basketball coach?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, let me -- can I filibuster this one?
THE MODERATOR: Sure. It’s your time.
JOHN CALIPARI: Here is what’s changed for me personally: That first year I knew John Wall would leave. He was that good. I didn’t know who else would go.
I told John Wall, “Don’t you leave here by yourself. You take people with you.”
He took four other first rounders with him.
I was like, what just happened? So then everybody got mad and you can’t do this this way. And then we had another group come in, took us to a Final Four, and those four left. Brandon Knight, that crew. Then we have three freshmen start the next year and brand new team and we win the national title.
What it does when you’re changing teams like this, it keeps you curious. You have to be. You have to look and say how do we play with this team? What drills do we use? Do we invent new drills? We’re doing things with this team that we’ve never done with any other team because we had to. It does keep you younger. There’s no lesson plan year to year. It’s all new.
And then the other thing at Kentucky, it keeps you on your toes based on the fact that there’s an expectation you win every single game by 20. If you’re not winning every single game by 20, something is wrong. And if you -- if you’re into reading all the stuff or listening to the people in the seats, you’ll be up there with them shortly.
It’s a different deal. I told this team, you guys have given me years back on my life coaching you, this team. I’ve had others that have added years to my life, okay, but it’s not this team. This team, they’ve tried, they listened. They’re gym rats. If I go in the office at 10:30 at night, they’re still in there I’ll have four guys in there. What are you doing?
So -- here you better adapt to your team and you better figure out defensively and how do you play offensively? Like no one knows, because I don’t know until we start and we get through a season.
THE MODERATOR: We have time for three more questions.
Q. Coach, been a lot of the kind of underside of college basketball exposed here in the last year and a half with some of the investigations and wiretaps. What are your thoughts with where the sport is health-wise, and some of the things that have been kind of brought out, what can be done to fix some of those things?
JOHN CALIPARI: Some of the stuff that is out there, you know, I will say you knew there’s stuff that was going on but you’re surprised by some of it. But I think it’s a cleansing. You know, if you’re going to do something now, you’re going to get on the phone or you’re going to go meet with somebody and try to do something, you either got some chutzpah or you’re really stupid, like stupid. So I think it should be a cleansing. I think the NCAA now gets a chance to say, how do we deal with this stuff? They can clean the slate and start all over.
Q. Coach, how much of your team’s growth this year from start until now in your opinion has had to do with the Ashton Hagans and the role he’s played at both ends?
JOHN CALIPARI: He’s changed who we are. He shoots it better -- look, tomorrow they’re not playing him. They are going to trap the post and leave Ashton. I’m telling you, he can shoot. How can a guy shoot 85 percent from the free throw line and then not shoot as well from the floor? I don’t get it. And I’m telling him, it’s mental. Get in the gym.
He’s in the gym because he started shooting -- making shots in practice. I’m like, “You’ve been in the gym?”
They’re all laughing. “Yeah, he’s been over here 10:30 at night,” knowing when I get shots, I’m making them in this game.
His defense, his ability to physically get by people and create for his teammates., he’s made us different.
But, Tyler Herro is really good, like he’s really good. Brad Stevens and I were talking. He told his young son what he was most impressed with with Tyler, he gave up his offense to guard Magee. And have to run around with Magee and gave up his offense. And he was 2 for 11. Couldn’t make a shot, but he made two free throws because he’s got a will to win.
Keldon as a young player. Johnson, another one physically able to go and do the things. Again, when you look at this team, the bench, Immanuel Quickly, Jemari Baker, those guys are vital for us.
They got to keep the music going. Like when they go in, keep the music going. You’re shutting off the radio. Keep the music going. You -- you can’t come in and turn it over for a layup down there or wide open 3 shooter there. You got to keep it going. You know what? They’re capable of that.
It’s not just Ashton. But I’ll be honest with you, he changed who we were.
THE MODERATOR: Final question quickly. Thank you.
Q. John, kind of a big picture question. Some talk about the NBA wanting the one-and-done rule going away in two, three years. How would you go about building a roster if that were to occur?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, you have to understand, only since I’ve been here have I not coached juniors and seniors. First of all, I would love to coach juniors -- I’m coaching Reid. He and I have political talks. We talk about stuff. Like having an older player, come on. But I think what will happen is, let’s see how it unfolds. Are they trying to build the G League? Is that why they’re doing this? In other words, let’s get 40 kids to come in and only five are going to be able to be in the NBA. We’ll take the other 30 and put them in the G League.
Is that where they’re going with this, where they -- again, I think when you diminish anything about education with young people, it’s a mistake for our society. I think kids should go right to the NBA. But there’s probably five or six or seven that are ready to do that, and even half of those will probably spend time in the G League.
To take 30 that can get an education, that could go on and do things if they don’t make it at basketball, big.
Now, all I can tell you, I don’t know how it will play out, but we’ll try to be first in whatever we’re doing. We took a grad student this year from a Power 5. Kind of worked for us and him, it worked. Would we take another? Yeah, if it was the right one and we thought he could help himself and us.
If I thought we were just getting a bench player, I wouldn’t do it. If I’m getting somebody who is going to be a practice player, wouldn’t do it to the kid. Whatever it is, our plan would be let’s be first, let’s be first to do it, and everybody will follow and do what we’re doing.
THE MODERATOR: John, thank you very much. Best of luck.
JOHN CALIPARI: Thanks.