UK-Houston preview: Washington’s status still ‘in the air’

UK-Houston preview: Washington’s status still ‘in the air’
John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats take on Houston in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game Friday.

(WAVE) - Hey, have you heard? Kentucky may or may not have the services of star forward PJ Washington when the Wildcats take the floor against Houston on Friday night.

The teams meet in a Sweet Sixteen matchup at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The winner will play either North Carolina or Auburn on Sunday for the right to advance to the Final Four.

No. 2-seed Kentucky has been a soap opera for two weeks. Washington showed up to the team’s first NCAA Tournament practice in Jacksonville, Fla., last week wearing a walking boot, three days after he sprained his foot against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals. Two days later, Washington was in a hard cast, and eventually missed both of UK’s wins last weekend.

Then, on Wednesday of this week, Washington tweeted a short video of himself walking comfortably in basketball shoes, with no boot or cast. And Thursday?

“I don’t know yet,” said Washington, UK’s top scorer (14.8 points per game) and rebounder (7.5). "I’m thinking about giving it a go, but it’s just in the air.

“I’m in a good place. I’m happy with where I’m at and I’m going to try and get back on the court as soon as I can.”

Added UK coach John Calipari: “If he’s 80 percent, I won’t play him.”

Regardless, third-seeded Houston is preparing as if Washington will play.

“We’ve never seen Kentucky play with him or without him, except on film,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said at Thursday’s media availability. “All the film we’re watching is with him.”

Added Houston guard Galen Robinson Jr.: “We’re preparing like he’s the starting 4 man. We still have to play Kentucky. We still have to try our hardest to win the game.”

As the Cougars were rolling through the American Conference this season, many analysts gave them the “Keep an eye on Houston” treatment in February, which by Selection Sunday had morphed into “I think Houston could surprise some people and get to the Final Four.”

Such assessments might be on point if it’s true that you can’t win a championship without good guard play. Houston has it, at least offensively. Its top five scorers are guards.

Senior Corey Robinson Jr. leads the team in scoring (17.1 points per game) and minutes (32.9). Robinson, also a senior, leads the team in assists (4.9) and steals (1.2). They’re both 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, but don’t let that fool you. They combine to average nearly seven rebounds per game, on a team that ranks fifth in the country in total rebounds per game (41.1) and eighth in rebounding margin (+7.8).

But the Cougars hang their hat on their defense, another crucial ingredient in the championship recipe. To wit:

+ Houston ranks first in the NCAA in field-goal percentage defense (36.7 percent)

+ Houston ranks first in the NCAA in three-point field-goal percentage defense (27.8 percent)

+ Houston ranks seventh in the NCAA in scoring defense (61 points per game allowed)

“We certainly work at (defense),” Sampson said. “We’re a good rebounding team; we’re a good defensive team. Defense is just guarding a series of actions.”

At Thursday’s media availability, Calipari heaped praise on his friend Sampson and the Cougars’ program, making its first Sweet 16 appearance in 35 years.

“Knowing Kelvin for as long as I have, what he’s done with the program, the culture that he’s created ... his players are really good,” Calipari said. “Obviously you know he can coach. They defend, they rebound, they share, they can shoot threes. If you don’t respect them, you’re losing.”

Kentucky and Houston tip off at approximately 10 p.m. ET Friday.

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