On the strength of victories over Abilene Christian and Wofford in the opening round of the NCAA Midwest regional in Jacksonville, the second-seeded Kentucky Wildcats move to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City.
Waiting on them in the land of barbecue is the third-seeded Houston Cougars. Tip time for the matchup is approximately 9:59 EST, though we should expect it to be later since it’s 30 minutes after Auburn vs. North Carolina. The game will be televised on TBS.
For the Wildcats (29-6), they have advanced to their eighth Sweet 16 under John Calipari with spectacular defense, timely shooting, and winning the battle on the glass, even without the services of All-American forward PJ Washington for the first two games of the tournament.
In both games, the Cats have been steadied by the play of senior forward Reid Travis. Travis has had a double-double and almost another one in his first two NCAA games ever (14 points/11 rebounds against Wofford, 18 points/9 rebounds vs. ACU).
The Cats balance on offense has been on display with five players with eight or more points against Wofford and three Cats in double figures against ACU. The Cats perimeter personnel of Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Jemarl Baker Jr. have had their moments of brilliance with the ball in their hands making UK a tough team to guard for sure.
But it’s been on the defensive end is where the Cats have been the most impressive. With the guards harassing their opponents on the outside and UK big men Travis, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery changing shots and cleaning the glass, the Cats have been more than opposing on defense, limiting both opponents to under 38% shooting from the field.
However, the Cats face their toughest defensive test of the tournament in the Cougars (33-3). Houston has made their bones this season on the defensive end as well and they have the numbers to back it up.
The Cougars are seventh in the country in scoring defense at 61 points per game allowed (UK is 28th at 64.5.) In their first two tournament games against Georgia State and Ohio State, UH has allowed an average of 57 points per game, while UK has given up an average of 50.
The Cougars have also rebounded well, averaging 44 rebounds in both games so far, led by star guard Armoni Brooks with 6.4 rebounds per game.
The Cougars offense is led by their other star guard, senior Corey Davis Jr. and his 17.1 points per game. The senior guard has attempted 26 three-pointers and connected on 10 of them. For the season, Davis is shooting 42% from distance.
Houston comes in winners of six of their last seven games, their lone defeat against Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference championship game. The Cougars are 3-1 against the Top 25 as well this season.
While this is a routine trip to the round of 16 for UK, this is the first time the Cougars have made a trip this deep in the tournament since 1984 when Phi Slama Jama and legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler led them to the finals.
What to Watch For
Is PJ going to play? The question that has set the social media and sports media ablaze with wonder is will the UK forward play Friday night. While pictures and video of Washington walking both without a cast and a walking boot have been seen, as well as coach John Calipari’s comments given no lean as to Washington’s availability, it goes without question that the Cats chances to advance to the Final Four could lay with Washington being able to play.
Granted, the Cats have played well without Washington so far, but with Washington the Cats have their most reliable scorer around the rim to the foul line. His scoring opens up everything on the perimeter and the blocks for the Cats, and his rebounding makes the Cats fast break even more lethal.
Can UK take advantage of their size advantage? While the Cats front line (with Washington) is 6-7, 6-8, 6-9, and 6-11 and their perimeter guys are 6-6, 6-5, and 6-4, the tallest Houston starter is 6-7. No question the Cats have the height advantage. But even without much size, the Cougars play extremely tough on both ends and will match the Cats in intensity. Still, UK has the type of elite size that championship teams are made of. Can they take advantage of it?
How will the Cats respond to the moment? Most every Cat fan believes that a full, healthy UK squad will be making the trip to Minneapolis for the Final Four, but to do that there are two huge games in front of them, the first being Houston. The Cougars have a senior-led backcourt in Davis and Brooks, and that usually is an advantage.
But honestly the Cougars and the Cats have about the same type of experience in the tournament, so there will be a feeling-out period for both clubs. The team that gets it going first will definitely have the advantage at advancing.
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