JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (KT) — Don’t count Kentucky out just yet.
Although a foot injury kept PJ Washington out of the lineup in Kentucky’s 79-44 win over Abilene Christian in the NCAA Tournament Thursday night, the Wildcats have enough talent in the tank to remain a national title contender if Washington’s absence extends beyond the first game of the tournament.
Calipari is used to dealing with adversity while trying to steer his team to the Final Four during the winds of March. It’s happened before, as recently as 2014 when Kentucky limped to the national title game without Willie Cauley-Stein.
Stein injured his right ankle in a 56-49 win over Kansas State to open the tournament that season and played in pain when the Wildcats knocked off top seed Witchita State in the second round. The injury got worse during a victory over Louisville. He missed the regional finale, a dramatic, but memorable 75-72 win over Michigan and didn’t play in the Final Four that season.
While Cauley-Stein cheered on the Wildcats from the sideline during the last four games that season and watched as Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson picked up the slack in his absence underneath.
Washington was vocal and cheered loudly as the Wildcats made it look easy in their NCAA Tournament opener.
“He was telling us what he was seeing while he was on the bench and what we can do better on the court to help our teammates,” Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans said. “He was taking everybody up (and) he was very helpful.”
The Wildcats faced the same adversity earlier this season when senior leader Reid Travis suffered a knee strain and missed the last five games of the regular season before returning in the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week. During that spurt, the Wildcats compiled a 4-1 record, giving reserves Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery an opportunity to gain more experience and confidence.
Kentucky is going to need the twin towers in the future, especially if Washington wears a cast for the remainder of the week. It’s not certain how long Washington will be out of the lineup.
“Before this team can be at our best, we’re going to need EJ and Nick,” Hagans said.
The unexpected injury to Washington and a late shift in the lineup doesn’t seem to be a concern to the team’s current eight-man rotation, especially one of the big men being called upon in the post to fill the void.
“Whatever pieces we have right now, we’re going to use it to try to advance,” Richards said.
In addition to dealing with Washington’s injury and his uncertainty, Calipari shot down rumors regarding the UCLA opening, which he quickly dispelled late Wednesday night before going settling into bed.
The Wildcats’ didn’t play like a team that was down and out against Abilene and put the opposing Wildcats away early and led 39-13 at the break. It was a start that helped ease Calipari’s nerves.
“What happens when teams are desperate, they'll do stuff they don't usually do, and if you let a team hang around, something stupid, crazy, like what just happened, can happen,” he said.
On a day filled with close calls, as it turns out, an early exit was the least of Calipari’s worries.
Calipari has been through this circus before and knows how to juggle the balancing act, whether it be a tweak or a simple lineup change. Anything can happen in March. Just ask members of the 2014 squad that lost to Connecticut in the NCAA championship game.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.