The Kentucky Wildcats are supremely comfortable when they get to wear their PJs. I am not talking about pajamas, of course, but P.J. Washington, who became one of the top players in the nation over the course of this college basketball season.
By Matt Zemek
Kentucky survived the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament without him, but now comes the second weekend, in which it will be harder to expect UK to win two main-event games without its best big man.
While we wait for word on whether Kentucky will get to wear its very comfortable PJs on Friday and/or Sunday in Kansas City for the Midwest Regional, let’s make something very clear about the Wildcats and how they are going to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015: They can’t focus on their own comfort or lack of it. They need to focus on their opponents’ discomfort.
We see this all the time in college basketball. We have seen it in the NCAA Tournament in recent years. A team with decent or above-average defense goes through struggles at the offensive end of the court. Those struggles affect the team in terms of its two-way play, and the droughts on offense become so pronounced that the team loses. A slightly different reality which we also see is that the struggle of a team on offense affects its performance on defense.
What often changes the equation for a team struggling on offense: Ceasing to worry about that end of the floor and reserving total focus on making life hell for the opposition.
Then, the focus is all on defense and effort, which travel well and can save teams when shots aren’t going in. THEN, when a team DOES get any degree of shooting or offense, it feels like found money, and a team becomes a defensive juggernaut with more than enough offense to make the Final Four.
South Carolina did this in 2017. Oregon did it as well in 2017. Syracuse did it in its 2016 Final Four run. These teams won ugly games and got in street fights, and never let their offense — which could struggle at times — to get in the way of their defense, which they relied on, and in some cases created offense for them on live-ball turnovers and runouts.
This is how Kentucky just beat Wofford. It shut out Fletcher Magee from long range, the centerpiece aspect of a hard-earned win without its PJs.
This is how Kentucky beat Wichita State — no, not the win as the 8 seed against the unbeaten Shockers in 2014, but the one as a 2 seed in 2017, which smoothed the path for an Elite Eight run which very nearly reached the Final Four had it not been for that damn Luke Maye.
Kentucky knows how to get into a street fight, and Houston is a team which loves a street fight. It should be a bare-knuckle brawl in Kansas City, with every single rebound being a precious jewel and every loose ball a prize beyond price. Houston tries to make its own opponents uncomfortable. Kentucky has to expect a very difficult, bruising, contentious, rugged contest. Discomfort will be the theme of the night. Kentucky can’t worry at all about feeling discomfort when it has the ball. This is a game which will be decided on rebounding, defense, fouls, and free throws, not 3-point shots or jump shooting. The best offense for these teams might be cleaning up misses and putting them back.
Whether P.J. Washington plays or not, Kentucky can’t focus on its own comfort level. Preparing to win defensive slugfests in which the other team feels the full force of Kentucky’s effort — especially on defense — is how the Cats are going to scratch and clay their way back to the Final Four.
Kansas City, here we come. Bring your shoulder pads and a willingness to win in the mud.
Auburn and North Carolina both like to play pretty basketball, the 94-foot racehorse style of play Bruce Pearl and Roy Williams love. If Kentucky does get by Houston, the Midwest Regional final on Sunday will be another occasion for Kentucky’s effort to overwhelm an opponent.
That is the way it will have to be for Big Blue this weekend. The Cats need to accept as much.