The Wildcats navigated the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in workmanlike fashion. Without the size and experience of PJ Washington in the lineup, and playing a three-point specialist school in Wofford in the second round, things could have been far more difficult than they eventually were.
By Steve Wright
The rest of the tournament figures to be a dogfight as an almost unprecedented number of high seeds also found their way to the Sweet 16. Next up for Kentucky is a battle with the No. 3 seeded Houston Cougars.
Here are the three keys:
The health of PJ Washington
Sometimes a key is obvious. That is the case here with Kentucky and the health of leading scorer and rebounder PJ Washington.
The Wildcats coped admirably without Washington over the course of the first weekend as he sat out with an awkward and frustrating foot injury. It helped immensely that Kentucky’s two opponents were undersized squads that wanted to shoot from the outside rather than bang in the paint.
That will not be the case here.
The Cougars are in no way a finesse team. The top end of the American is loaded with gritty, tough as nails basketball squads that will bang all day and contest every rebound and loose ball. This is a team that is undersized, but none of their players seem to realize that.
The Wildcats need Washington for his 14.8 points and 7.5 boards per game. Washington gives Kentucky the size and talent inside to score and finish around the rim. If he is healthy then Kentucky will win. If he is not then it is going to be more of a struggle and other players will need to step up.
Prepare for a fight
With or without Washington this game is going to be a battle.
It is going to be one of those matchups where a five point lead feels like a 15 point lead in other games just because of how good these defenses are. We all know that Kentucky can defend with the best of them when the players are switched on and focused. That will have to be the case against a Houston squad that is every bit the Wildcats equal on defense.
The Cougars rank No. 1 in the nation in field goal percentage defense at 36.7 percent. They are No. 2 in defending the three-point shot, holding opponents to just 27.6 percent from deep. It should come as no surprise that they are also one of the stingiest teams in the country, ranking No. 8 in scoring defense and giving up just 61.2 points per game.
Kentucky is not going to walk into Kansas City and roll over the Cougars with an offensive barrage. Thankfully, the Kentucky defense has been on show all season long and the Wildcats will need another defensive master class on Friday night.
Stop Corey Davis Jr.
While the Cougars are a solid team offensively, they are a team with one big star. If Kentucky can shut down Davis then they will have one foot in the Elite Eight.
That, though, will be far from simple. Davis averages 17.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. He is a player that can light it up from downtown or who can get into the paint and cause problems on the dribble with his athleticism and quickness.
Davis sets the tempo for this Houston team. Even when he is not scoring the ball he is adept at taking over a game with his passing and ability to keep his team pushing the ball when needed or pulling it up to set a play. While he has 2.8 assists per game, he is usually the player making the key pass before the assist as he has outstanding vision and feel for the game.
The defense of the Kentucky guards has been outstanding this season. If they can shut down Davis and make a different Houston player beat them then it will be a good day for John Calipari’s team.