By Mrs. Tyler Thompson on ©March 30th, 2019 @ 12:00pm
Tyler Herro has proven he’s capable of hitting big shots, but admit it: when he missed that free throw with seven minutes left — only his second miss from the charity stripe in 2019 — you started to worry. John Calipari did.
“I said it after the game, when he missed that free throw — I haven’t seen him miss a free throw in a long, long, long, long, long, long time. He missed that free throw. I looked at my bench. I go, this doesn’t look good for us because, you know, when he misses a free throw, this could go south in a hurry.”
It did, with Houston seizing momentum and entering the final minute with a three-point lead. Thankfully, that’s when Herro’s transformation into a bucket began. When PJ Washington blocked Corey Davis, Jr.’s shot with 35 seconds left, Herro caught it and went to work.
He's a bucket.pic.twitter.com/Ny9sBSwzJA
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) March 30, 2019
“I just brought the ball up, hit Keldon on the wing, and I made the shot,” Herro said.
“He didn’t listen to me,” Cal said. “When he caught it, I said ‘Drive the ball, drive the ball.’ He shot it. I said, ‘Great shot, Tyler. Way to make those plays.'”
“I knew it was going in,” EJ Montgomery said of Tyler’s three. “Never a doubt. I’ve always got confidence in Tyler.”
Ashton Hagans agreed, explaining that because Tyler puts the work in at the gym, he’s earned the right to fire away.
“We have so much confidence in him,” Hagans said. “When he shot it and made it, I do the same look that I do any other time. Knowing that he’s taking that shot, that’s a big time shot. He’s in the gym all the time working, so he can take anything that he wants.”
PJ Washington said that after Tyler missed that free throw, he pulled him aside and gave him a pep talk.
“He works on that shot every day. I’m very confident in Tyler’s game and when he missed that free throw, he said, ‘Man, I don’t know what’s going on.’ I said, ‘Stop. You’re Boy Wonder.’ So, he made his next two and made a three. I’m proud of him.”
We all are.
By Jack Pilgrim on ©March 30th, 2019 @ 9:00am
It may not have been the prettiest of finishes, but the Kentucky Wildcats are still dancing following a 62-58 victory over the Houston Cougars.
In the first half, the Wildcats found themselves in a back-and-forth contest with the Cougars including eight lead changes and three ties in the first 9:29 of the game.
From there, though, Kentucky turned a 12-12 tie game at the 10:31 mark into a 30-20 lead with 3:43 remaining, which soon spread to 13 points with just 31 seconds remaining. Houston’s Dejon Jarreau hit a jumper to cut the UK lead to 11 at the break, but the Cats still maintained a lead they were comfortable with going into the second half.
Unfortunately for them, they seemed to be a bit too comfortable with their lead, as they managed just eight points in the first ten minutes after the break and an abysmal 12 points total at the final media timeout. All of the energy and passion they played with early completely disappeared, and at several key points late in the game, it looked like Kentucky’s road would be ending in the Sweet 16 once again.
But unlike last season, after a complete second-half collapse, the Cats caught their footing just before it was too late, climbing back from a three point deficit with just 1:16 remaining to grind out the victory. Kentucky forward PJ Washington hit a tough turnaround jumper to cut it to one with 56 seconds left, had a massive block with 36 seconds left, and then freshman guard Tyler Herro drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer with just 25 ticks left on the clock.
Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. missed a 3-pointer on their end of the floor, Herro got fouled, and sank both free throws to put the Cats up four with just 14 seconds remaining.
As the Cougars missed one final three, the Wildcats celebrated their massive victory to move on to the Elite Eight, John Calipari’s seventh in ten years at Kentucky.
Here are the key takeaways:
PJ Washington came back with fire
While there’s plenty to discuss about this game, easily the biggest storyline to come out of this victory is Washington fighting through his sprained foot to play 26 minutes for the Cats.
And from the second he tossed aside his warmups and jogged onto the floor for the first time in three games, his presence was felt.
With 15:07 to go in the first, he drilled a baseline jump hook off, giving the Cats an 8-7 lead. Just a bit later, he found himself open on a dunk in transition, and followed it up with a long two from the top of the key, pushing Kentucky’s lead to seven. He then returned to the floor and hit two free throws around the five-minute mark.
In the first half alone, Washington played a total of 8:51 in two major stretches, finishing with eight points (3-3 shooting and 2-2 from the FT line) and an assist.
After the break, the Kentucky sophomore converted on a dunk within the first three minutes, but his biggest contributions would come late. He hit a jumper with 5:01 remaining to put the Cats up three, tied the game back up at 51 apiece with two made free throws, then finished his tough turnaround jumper to cut it to one with 56 seconds. Combine that with his clutch block on the ensuing possession, which led to Herro’s massive game-winning shot, the Kentucky sophomore was a difference-maker on both ends of the floor for his team.
Calipari said after the win that Washington, who finished with 16 points, two rebounds, and an assist, was in too much pain before the game to go through the team shootaround and he had serious doubts that the Wildcat forward would play.
Instead, Washington fought through the pain, put the team on his back, and led his team to the Elite Eight.
Tyler Herro had ice in his veins
With the Cats down one with 25.8 seconds remaining, Kentucky shooting guard Tyler Herro unleashed his inner Aaron Harrison and drilled a remarkable go-ahead three.
With a hand in his face and the game on the line, Herro launched it with zero hesitation. He’s had clutch moments over the course of this season, but none come close to this massive momentum swing:
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019
To put the icing on the cake, after missing his first free throw in 36 attempts, Herro went to the line and sank two shots to put the Cats up four with 14 seconds remaining. Zero hesitation or worry in his mind, the Wildcat shooting guard sealed the victory.
Overall, Herro finished with a team-high 19 points on 7-13 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, and a steal, obviously great numbers. He thrived in the midrange, hitting tough basket after tough basket with defenders draped over him. When the Wildcats needed an offensive spark, Herro provided it.
But his clutch performance in the final 30 seconds of the game is what he will be remembered for in the future. That was special.
Houston tightened things up in the second half
As easy as it is to look at the positive moments for the Cats, especially late in the game, it’s just as important to note how close they were to letting this victory slip out of their fingers.
After getting just about whatever they wanted against the Cougars in the first half, Kentucky absolutely crumbled in the second. There was no semblance of an offense to be found, shots were nearly impossible to come by, and Houston hit just about everything they tossed at the rim. While Kelvin Sampson’s halftime adjustments were phenomenal, it seemed like Kentucky had no plan at all after the intermission. It was eerily reminiscent of UK’s second-half meltdown against Kansas State during the NCAA Tournament last season.
Luckily they got it together just before it was too late, but execution just simply wasn’t there for the vast majority of the second half. It felt like they were trying to run the clock out and hold onto the lead for dear life instead of following through with their gameplan that seemingly worked going into the matchup.
Credit to the Cougars for making things uncomfortable for Kentucky, but it’d be silly to say the Cats don’t have some things to figure out before they take on Auburn on Sunday.
With how hot the Tigers are right now, if UK goes out and plays like they did after the break tonight, their season will end Sunday. End of story.
Kentucky won the battle on the glass
Going into Friday night’s game, one of the biggest topics of discussion was Houston’s lack of interior presence. While their play on the perimeter has been outstanding this season, no player over 6-foot-5 averages more than 6.5 points or pulls in more than 4.1 rebounds per game for the Cougars.
Even when we didn’t know if PJ Washington would take the floor, Kentucky’s size and strength on the inside was a massive key to the game. When it became clear the Wildcat sophomore would take the floor, that put even more pressure on the Cougar frontcourt to hold their own.
In fact, Houston’s Chris Harris, per Kyle Tucker of The Athletic, said on Thursday that the game would come down to who will win on the inside, specifically on the glass.
“I believe that will be the game,” he said. “Whoever wins the rebounding battle, that will be the game.”
At the end of the first half, Kentucky led in rebounding 18-7. The Cats led 37-26.
To end the game, Kentucky led in rebounding 36-23. The Cats won 62-58.
Harris had it completely right. The winner of the rebounding battle came out on top.
Other player notes
While Washington and Herro were the stars of the show, Reid Travis, Immanuel Quickley, and EJ Montgomery made some massive plays in their own right.
In the first half alone, Quickley drilled two massive threes to go with two rebounds and a steal. As for Montgomery, he had two points, four rebounds, one steal, and one block at the break. The Wildcats found themselves in a great spot after 20 minutes, and these two were absolutely a part of that.
The freshman point guard finished the day shooting 2-5 overall and 2-3 from three, but he also added two rebounds, one assist, and zero turnovers. Montgomery, on the other hand, also had a balanced final total of two points, five rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one block.
As for Travis, the senior forward finished the day with a solid stat-line of six points, 11 rebounds, and two assists, but his biggest contribution came in the form of clutch board after clutch board in the second half. As a whole, the Wildcats had 11 offensive rebounds, and Travis had four of them, with each of those seemingly coming in make-or-break moments of the game.
On the flip side, freshman point guard Ashton Hagans hurt the team with careless turnovers (four overall), while freshman forward Keldon Johnson really struggled to shoot the ball (3-12 overall, 1-5 from three).
With Auburn’s elite guard play, Hagans will need to step up in a big way on both ends of the floor on Sunday. As for Johnson, we saw how badly Kentucky needed points tonight. With a Final Four on the line against a team that loves to light the scoreboard up, Johnson has to play the way he’s capable of.
No. 2 Kentucky will take on No. 5 Auburn on Sunday at 2:20 p.m. ET live on CBS.
Winner goes to the Final Four in Minneapolis.
By Mrs. Tyler Thompson on ©March 30th, 2019 @ 1:23am
As you might expect, Kentucky’s locker room was a happy one after the Cats’ 62-58 win over Houston. Keldon Johnson was so happy that once he got a hold of his favorite microphone (on loan from the amazing Amy Newman of Big Blue Express), he went after his teammate EJ Montgomery:
When Keldon Johnson gets on the mic in the locker room pic.twitter.com/rz3tc3ygHF
— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) March 30, 2019
It didn’t stop there. While PJ Washington and Tyler Herro were mobbed by reporters, Keldon serenaded the rest of the room with Fantasia’s “When I See You,” his favorite song, per Ashton Hagans:
They also danced to a little Drake:
“Wagon Wheel” even made an appearance:
Videos like this make me even happier this team lived to see another day.
By Drew Franklin on ©March 30th, 2019 @ 12:41am
Kentucky’s Elite 8 game with Auburn was given the 2:20 p.m. ET time slot on Sunday afternoon. It will be televised on CBS.
Duke and Michigan State will take over in the second game, tentatively set for 5:05 p.m.
The Final Four is on the line!
By Drew Franklin on ©March 30th, 2019 @ 12:19am
Kentucky needed some late game Herroics to escape a late Houston comeback in the Sweet 16. Led by Tyler Herro with 19 and PJ Washington with 16 (and a game-saving block), the Cats prevailed, 62-58.
Up next: Auburn in the Elite 8.
Oh my heart.
By Jack Pilgrim on ©March 29th, 2019 @ 6:00pm
Over the last several years, Kentucky fans have been fairly critical of the UK coaching staff for failing to seal the deal on some of the top recruits in the nation. National recruiting analysts say John Calipari’s magic wand is gone.
They’ve certainly been recruiting at an elite level, but the top-three prospects that flocked to Lexington every year to start the Calipari era are now either headed to Duke or staying home and playing for their local schools.
After starting his Kentucky career with the No. 1 recruiting class in six of his first seven seasons, including five consecutive (2009-2013), Calipari has been topped by Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils in four straight years. They’ve still managed the No. 2 recruiting class in each of those seasons (and still could overtake the No. 1 spot in 2019), but the growing frustration in not bringing in players such as Vernon Carey Jr., Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Marvin Bagley III, among others, is evident.
Outside of the consensus top-three players going to Duke, we’re also seeing players like James Wiseman, Anthony Edwards, Romeo Langford, and Dennis Smith Jr. saying no to the blue bloods and opting to be the big fish in a small pond at their hometown schools.
With these growing questions, I asked some of the players in the 2019 recruiting class who actually made these decisions their side of the story and whether or not the Big Blue Nation’s worries are justified. Is Kentucky “losing their touch” on the recruiting trail or is it simply a string of tough decisions that just didn’t swing their way?
On the flip side, I also asked future Kentucky Wildcats Kahlil Whitney and Tyrese Maxey their thoughts on the matter and why they felt UK was the best fit for them. Does that narrative put a chip on their shoulders when they get to Lexington?
Why not Kentucky?
James Wiseman (Memphis)
“I had a great relationship with John Calipari, he’s a great coach, he treats his players well, and he’s just a great mastermind at basketball. What led me to Memphis is just the fact that me and Penny Hardaway have a strong relationship, and that’s my guy. They’ve got an NBA coaching staff this year, they’ve got Sam Mitchell and Mike Miller, so I feel that I can develop tremendously under their wings. My game will change there.
“Kentucky has a lot of guys coming in, a lot of playmakers, so Calipari said we’d run a pick-and-roll system, go up and down in transition, stuff like that to get me going. An uptempo system. Kentucky is definitely a great school, but so is the University of Memphis. I just did what I had to do to better my family, really. And just me personally to develop my game.”
Vernon Carey Jr. (Duke)
“It’s just… I don’t know. I just feel like the recruiting class that’s coming in with Duke, I’ve had a great relationship with them. I knew Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney, but I didn’t really know them like that. It’s just the relationships I had with the teammates I have coming in with me in this class.
“But no, (that narrative) isn’t true at all. They still got Tyrese, Kahlil, and they still might get (N’Faly Dante or Isaiah Todd) to reclassify. So they’ll be fine.”
Isaiah Stewart (Washington)
“Kentucky is a powerhouse, they pump out pros every year. Coach Cal is definitely a great guy, Kenny Payne is a great guy, the whole coaching staff over there. They’re definitely a school that came into my recruitment late, but I still enjoyed the process we did have, the relationships we had and still have. It wasn’t really a specific reason why I didn’t pick Kentucky, it just felt that Washington was the best fit out of all of my schools. My relationship with Coach Hopkins, that stood out a lot, and I’m a relationship guy.”
Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia)
“It was a hard decision because I like Kentucky, and I love Coach Calipari. But I ended up at West Virginia because it’s the school I used to think about a lot (growing up). I like the way that they play at West Virginia, I like the coach, and I like the program. That’s why I ended up going there.
“Coach Calipari was saying, “I want to coach you. Come play for me. I’m going to help you, and you’re going to become a great player. I’m going to help you reach your dreams.” They told me a lot of good things. Kentucky was second (on my list).”
“To me, if you took an official visit to Kentucky and you see the actual work they put in, if you’re not the kind of guy that wants to come in there day in and day out and put that work in, I’m pretty sure it’ll run you away. When I saw that, I knew they were going to get me better, that Coach Cal was actually going to coach me. I’m coachable, so I know he’s going to push me to my limit, and that’s going to get the best out of me. When I saw how he coached Keldon (Johnson) and Tyler (Herro) these past (several) months, it really made me excited. I want to be coached. I want to be held accountable. I want to be pushed. That’s why I chose Kentucky.”
“I think it’s a trust thing. I really trust Coach Cal. I’ve seen his track record, and I feel that the (negative pitch from opposing teams) of not scoring or not getting enough shots, he wants to win. And that’s what I want to do. I want to win. At the end of the day, I want to win a national championship. Like I’ve been telling everybody, whatever it takes. If it takes me to get a rebound or block somebody out, I’m gonna go do it. And I feel that Coach Cal will put me in the best position for my future.
“Coach Cal, he came into my home, and he told me straight facts. He never lied to me, and I feel like he’ll get me to the next level. … Everybody says “Oh, Coach Cal is going to be yelling at you.” No, he’s going to be coaching me. He’s going to make me a lot better than I am today, and I already thank him a lot for that. Giving me the opportunity to come to Kentucky.”
By Adam Luckett on ©March 29th, 2019 @ 12:00pm
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The second weekend of the NCAA Tournament has arrived and Kentucky will be taking the floor in Kansas City for the first time in its postseason history. For the eighth time this decade, UK will be playing in the nightcap on Sweet 16 weekend.In the Sprint Center, UK will be facing a Houston squad with multiple senior starters and a head coach with 600-plus career wins. The AAC regular season champs own an impressive 33-3 record and return to the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since Phi Slama Jama in 1984.
Two of the nation’s best defensive teams will be going at it on the hardwood and this figures to be an old school, grind it out game. Even with PJ Washington’s expected return, the Wildcats will need to play very well to survive and advance.
Nuts and Bolts
After leading perennial doormat Washington State to the NCAA Tournament in 1994, Kelvin Sampson landed at football school Oklahoma. In Norman he made an immediate impact. Through a dozen seasons, Sampson collected 279 wins to go with three Big XII tournament titles and a Final Four appearance in 2002. After that super successful run, Sampson headed to his dream job.
The North Carolina native was hired to replace Mike Davis at Indiana and it did not take him long to get it rolling in Bloomington. After a Round of 32 appearance in 2007, Sampson had the Hoosiers sitting at 22-4 before the stuff hit the fan. The second-year head coach resigned from his post that February 2008 for essentially making illegal phone calls to recruits. After leaving the college ranks for an NBA assistant job, Sampson was essentially blackballed from coaching college hoops again. The NCAA delivered a five-year show-cause penalty and that would keep Sampson out of college ball for six seasons. Then Houston came calling.
After a brutal first year in the AAC, the Coogs named Kelvin Sampson their next head coach and it’s been a rapid build for the program ever since. After winning just 13 games in 2015, Houston jumped to 22 wins in 2016 and then 27 victories and a Round of 32 appearance in 2018. Following the departure of their best player, there were some who thought UH could possible take a step back. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
The Coogs are having their best season since Hakeem Olajuwon was on campus. UH was the last undefeated team remaining this season on their way to a 29-2 regular season record and a No. 11 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll entering the postseason. It was the program’s first conference title since 1992 and Houston is in their first Sweet 16 since 1984. The UH faithful is so fired up that they are wearing Stetsons to NCAA Tournament games now.
Officially terrified to play Houston in the Sweet 16 now pic.twitter.com/J26vUzhwiO
— Bobby Reagan (@BarstoolReags) March 25, 2019
In Sampson’s fourth season, he is leaning on a team with very strong guard play and a lot of experience. The Cougars start three seniors and one junior. On offense they are very perimeter oriented and want to shoot plenty of threes. On the defensive end, UH plays man-to-man and tries to keep everything in front so they can challenge shots. They switch a ton of ball screens to be able to do this. That has shown up by them ranking tops in the country when it comes to field goal percentage defense.
This will be the fifth meeting all-time between the two programs and the first since 2007. UK leads the all-time series by a count of 3-1 including a huge win on Super Bowl Sunday against Phi Slama Jama in 1984. This will be the first ever meeting in the postseason. In Sweet 16 games, John Calipari is 11-3 while Kelvin Sampson is 2-1.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 2.5 point favorite with a total of 133.5. That’s a projected final score of 68-65.5. In the NCAA Tournament, both UK and UH are 2-0 against the spread. On the season, UK is 18-16-1 against the number while Houston is 22-12-1. The under for both teams is 4-1 in their last five games.
The strength of Houston’s team is in the backcourt with three upperclassmen starters. In junior Armoni Brooks and seniors Corey Davis Jr. and Galen Robinson Jr., Houston has one of the most impressive perimeter lineups in college basketball despite their lack of height.
The best player of the bunch is senior Corey Davis Jr. who leads the team with 17.1 points per game. The junior college product leads the team in minutes played and is shooting 38.1 percent from three on nearly 300 three-point attempts. Davis is not just a jump shooter, however. The 6-foot-1 guard leads the team with 126 free throw attempts and has a done a good job all season drawing contact. He has the green light at all times shown by the 12 games where he has at least 10 three-point shot attempts. The senior is quick off the bounce and can hurt defenses with dribble penetration in addition to being a very solid defender.
Houston’s most important player could be senior point guard Galen Robinson Jr. The former top-300 recruit was a member of Kelvin Sampson’s first signing class and he is the straw the stirs the drink. The 6-foot-1 Houston native dishes out 4.9 assists per game and is this team’s best perimeter defender. He doesn’t provide much of a threat shooting the basketball, but he sets the tone with his individual defense and ball movement on offense.
The biggest guard in UH’s backcourt is junior Armoni Brooks (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) and that’s not saying much. Brooks is second on the team in scoring with 13.2 points per game, leads the team in rebounding, and has attempted 298 three-pointers. The Round Rock, Texas native is this team’s most dangerous shooter beyond the arc hitting 38.6 percent from deep. He’s a poor free throw shooter, but does not get to the line much. He’s out there to space the floor and hit open shots.
Off the bench, UMass transfer DeJon Jarreau is used in multiple spots for UH. The sixth man is third on the team in scoring with 8.7 points per game. Jarreau is a solid backup option at point who will move the ball and be a slasher from the wing. Jarreau brings some much needed size to Houston’s perimeter (6-foot-5, 185 pounds).
Overall, UH has an athletic backcourt with a solid mix of shooters and creators at the point. The Cougars aren’t very big, but they are experienced and very dangerous when the three-point shot is falling.
In the frontcourt, UH has plenty of options. However, the most important piece could be at the five-spot in junior college transfer Breaon Brady.
The 6-foot-8 and 250-pound senior is putting up 6 points and 4 rebounds per game this season and he will be UH’s biggest weapon in attempting to slow down Reid Travis on the block. However, the Coogs have many more options to go with the former junior college player.
Fabian White Jr. starts at the four and brings some athleticism to the position. Off the bench, Houston uses Cedrick Alley Jr. and Brison Gresham. Each brings athleticism to the position similar to White, but no one has the size of Brady.
The most talented player in the frontcourt is blue-chip freshman wing Nate Hinton. The North Carolina native was a big recruiting win for Kelvin Sampson’s staff and he’s played well this season. The rookie might be this team’s best defensive rebounder and has flashed signs of being a terrific defender. When called upon he’s been efficient on offense, but UH is at its best on defense when Hinton is on the floor. He is the future for this program.
Keys to Victory
- Houston has been a solid defensive rebounding team all season, but tonight they’re up against a difficult challenge. Not only does Kentucky have a size advantage at nearly every spot, but Houston’s leading rebounder is guard Armoni Brooks. In a game that is most likely to be a slugfest, gaining extra shots on possessions could be vital. If UK is able to gobble up their missed shots it could make their night easier on the offensive end.
- When you just look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why Houston is so good on defense. UH has interchangeable parts on the perimeter and interior. The veteran club plays together and do a great job contesting shots despite their lack of height at some spots. However, they do have a weakness. UH fouls a lot and this could be a big advantage for Kentucky. The Wildcats have done a great job getting to the line and as a team they are shooting 74.4 percent from the stripe. Against a very good defense, it will be essential for UK to get to the foul line to bust some scoring droughts.
- On offense, over 42 percent of Houston’s shots come from three and the Coogs get 35.8 percent of their scoring from long distance. Most of this production comes from guards Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. The two will pull from anywhere and UH is heavily dependent on their jump shots falling. If UK is able to limit the three-point production from UH’s top two scorers it could be a long day on offense for the Cougars.
- On every post touch, UH is going to double down. Whether it is Reid Travis or PJ Washington on the low block, UK’s bigs are going to face pressure whenever they try to score. You can expect these double teams to come off Ashton Hagans. UH is going to dare UK’s freshman point guard to score the basketball. If Hagans is aggressive and takes advantage of the multiple available scoring opportunities it will make UK’s night much easier on offense.
At the beginning of every Houston game, Kelvin Sampson looks like your regular college basketball coach. He’s dressed with suit and tie just as you expect. However, that does not last long.
It is not uncommon for Sampson to lose both his jacket and tie quickly into a game. By the end of tonight’s game he’ll likely look like an accountant walking out of the office weary eyed on April 15th. It may catch you off guard, but this is just what he does.
By Aaron Torres on ©March 29th, 2019 @ 11:00am
The NCAA Tournament is down to 16 teams, and you can argue there is no more intriguing matchup in the Sweet 16 than Kentucky-Houston. Will P.J. Washington play? Can the young Wildcats handle the veteran Cougars? Can Houston handle the size, skill and overall talent of Kentucky? It won’t be too long before we find out.
And as Kentucky does get set to take the court against Houston, the one question everyone in the Bluegrass wants answered (outside of Washington’s status) is a simple one: What will it take for Kentucky to get a victory against Houston?
Thankfully, that’s why I’m here.
That’s because whenever Kentucky has had a big game throughout the season, I have often called a friend or two in the coaching industry and asked for scouting reports on that team. I did it prior to the North Carolina game. And Auburn. And Kansas (ironically, Kentucky won all those games).
And I’m doing it again today.
Earlier this week I spoke to a coach who faced Houston earlier in the season, and after agreeing to keep him anonymous – no reference to his name or school – he gave me unfiltered access to his scouting report from the Houston game, overviewing who they are, what they do well and how they can be exposed.
Below, an anonymous opposing gives a scouting report on how to beat Houston:
For Houston it All Starts on the Defensive End of the Court
Throughout the season, Kentucky has played some of the best teams in the country, ranging from Duke to North Carolina, Tennessee, Auburn, LSU and Kansas (Ok, well maybe not Kansas. They were terrible this year). Yet it isn’t an exaggeration to say that none of those teams play defense quite like Houston. The Cougars are – statistically speaking anyway –quite possibly the best defensive team in the country. They rank seventh nationally in points per game allowed (61 per contest) and No. 1 overall in field goal percentage defense (36.7 percent).
So for Kentucky, they better grab their hard hats and get ready to do battle. Houston is going to play hard for all 40 minutes.
“Understand that it’s going to be a dog fight all the way through,” the coach said. “And with a team like Houston, you’re never free. You’re never in the clear.”
In terms of what the Cougars do defensively, it really is nothing extra special, other than knowing their assignments and playing their butts off. Houston switches every ball screen, and my coaching buddy points out that they are going to try to cut off driving lanes and make you score “over them” not around them. If Ashton Hagans thinks he’s going to have one uncontested drive to the rim after another, he better think again.
More than anything however, when Houston is on the defensive end of the court, it isn’t about necessarily forcing the turnover on every play, but instead making life miserable for the opponent.
“It wasn’t always about steals,” he said. “It was about throwing off the other team’s rhythm. And I think that’s what they do… They’re jumping to the ball. They’re either denying the pass or they’re making you make tough twos.”
That’s also why…
Kentucky’s best chance at offensive success is to continue to move the ball
Remember at halftime of the Wofford game last Saturday, when the CBS sideline reporter asked John Calipari about his team’s first half performance? And Calipari barked back that they “finally figured out how to pass the ball” late in the first half? Well, it really is no different against Houston.
“You’ve got to keep the ball moving, when things start breaking down and you’re going one-on-one, you’re in trouble,” he said. “You’ve got to create a lot of movement and a lot of cuts. You’ve got to be strong with the basketball.”
With that swarming defense, the No. 1 key is to keep the ball moving. If anyone tries to do too much themselves, it will be advantage Houston.
When Houston is on offense, it all starts with point guard Galen Robinson:
Look at a Houston box score, and the names that jump off the page are senior guard Corey Davis, who averaged a team-high 17 points per game and junior Armoni Brooks, who averaged 13 (more on them coming). But according to this coach, it all starts and ends with point guard Galen Robinson Jr.
Robinson averaged just under five assists per game, and did it with a simple approach: Get into the lane and read and react to what the defense gives him from there.
“He’s trying to go downhill,” the coach said. “He’s just trying to get into the paint and have you help. That’s his job because he’s got shooters on the wings.”
That also leads to what should be the biggest fear for the Kentucky coaching staff…
Every player on the court has to be sure not to leave their man on defense:
And again, it starts with Robinson and his ability to get into the lane.
Understand that no matter what you do, Robinson is going to get in the lane. It’s unavoidable.
But when it does happen, it’s important that Robinson’s defender is able to contain him, and that help doesn’t have to come from another defender. Because if it does, it means that it will leave someone else open.
“They know how to move without the ball,” the coach said. “And that’s a key too. They have shooters out there who can shoot. But they move without the ball really well.”
Therefore, you can’t lose your man on defense. Heck, you can’t even take your eyes off him.
“As soon as you turn your head to help for a second, they’re not in the same spot as they were before. They’re moving, they’re getting their shot ready.”
For Kentucky it isn’t just about identifying your man, but making sure to stay with him. Even when a play breaks down.
All five guys can rebound – so you better box out. Second chance offense is also where the Cougars get a lot of their three-point scoring from
Again, if you simply look at a Houston box score you’ll see that Houston isn’t overwhelmingly big. The three front-court players who play regularly in their rotation are Fabian White, Breaon Brady and Cedrick Alley Jr., and none are taller than 6’8. But what Houston does have is guards who are big for their position. Brooks is “only” 6’3, but with a crazy long wingspan. And off the bench, Nate Hinton and Dejon Jarreau are 6’5 each.
It also leads to a weird phenomenon with Houston: Their two leading rebounders are actually guards (Brooks and Hinton) and all five guys on the floor are capable of grabbing boards.
Well, capable of grabbing boards and making you pay for the second-chance opportunity afterward.
“They’re probably one of the more high-scoring teams off the second chance,” the coach said. “Because when their guys get those offensive rebounds they’re looking for their shooters.”
Therefore if you’re a Kentucky player you better secure rebounds. And if you don’t, you better hustle out to your man. Because Houston will make you pay otherwise.
Houston’s bigs aren’t specifically skilled, but they are tough
Another thing that jumps out when you watch the Cougars is that they just get so much production from their guards. Incredibly, their top five scorers are all in the back-court. As the coach explained, the bigs are more role players willing to do their jobs, set screens and crash the glass.
But what they lack in skill, they make up for in toughness.
“Their bigs are vets, they’re strong, they’re burly, they know their role,” the coach said. “They’re not going to try to do anything they can’t do. And they are some rebounding machines. They’re tough and physical.”
Like the guards, they also crash the glass. If anything, they know that’s their best chance at getting points onto the stat sheet.
“It’s pretty obvious that Sampson said to them “Ok, you want the ball. You’ve got to go get it.” And that’s the thing, they crash like they no other.”
Let’s start to wrap breaking down Houston’s two best players: Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks
Because woooooah buddy was this coach impressed.
As a matter of fact, he took it one step further than “impressed.” The coach, who spent time in the SEC during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 seasons (he left this past season) said that he believed those guards were as good as any that he saw during that stretch.
“Brooks and Davis are two of the best guards that we’ve seen,” he said. “Being in the SEC, those two dudes were just as good as the guys I saw in the SEC. I saw [Tremont] Waters and [Collin] Sexton and De’Aaron Fox. But the way they play, they can kill you from the outside, they are really aggressive and really confident.”
Now before people get upset, let’s clarify a couple things: First off, the coach was talking about all those guys as college guards. So before anyone says to me “Yeah, OK, some dude at Houston is really as good as De’Aaron Fox, who is averaging 18 points a game in the NBA right now,” just take a chill pill. Davis and Brooks are both 21 and 22-year-old grown men, who are being compared to Fox and Collin Sexton when they were in college.
Two, it’s not as though Brooks and Davis don’t have weaknesses.
The coach pointed out that Brooks has a long release on his jump shot, and that if you can crowd his space, it can make it difficult for him to get his jumper off. And Davis, while strong isn’t necessarily very big, standing at just 6’1.
“With Davis you’d rather him get closer and try to score over you instead of [letting him shoot threes],” the coach said.
Finally, as mentioned up top, just be ready to do battle
Of all the points that the coach discussed, the one he most hammered home was the one mentioned up top: There is nothing super-complex to what Houston does. They just play hard and bust their butt.
And if you’re not ready to do battle, they will make you look bad.
“Everything about them man, it’s physical,” he said. “If you don’t have the physicality to match those guys you’re going to be in trouble.”
Kentucky has been one of the mentally toughest teams in college basketball this year.
As long as they bring that toughness, they should be ready for anything Houston throws at them.
By Mrs. Tyler Thompson on ©March 28th, 2019 @ 11:20pm
Greetings from the media hotel in Kansas City, where I’ve got my feet up and a beer open after a long day of press conferences, locker room crowdedness, and looking at PJ Washington’s foot. I’m a little worried that if I focus on Purdue’s lead over Tennessee too much, it will disappear, so allow me to distract myself by typing out some random thoughts from a busy day in KC.
PJ Washington handled today like a pro
Coming into today, the noise about PJ Washington’s foot was deafening. As a fan and someone who also covers the team, I’m not lying when I say PJ’s foot has kind of taken over my life the past few days, which is why I was so happy to see him walking just fine with my own two eyes. Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson were initially supposed to handle the podium press conference duties with John Calipari, but at the last minute, PJ joined them. I was waiting outside the locker room when the decision was made and PJ walked by, leaving a couple dozen reporters fumbling to take pictures of him in his wake.
When PJ returned to the locker room and the mob around him thinned enough for me to squeeze in, I couldn’t have been more impressed by how he handled himself. Not only was he answering the same questions over and over again (“Will you play tomorrow,” “On a scale of 1-10, how much pain are you in?”, etc.) he did it all in a professional and positive manner, determined to make the most of what has to be a tough situation.
If you listened to the latest episode of my podcast (and if you haven’t, why not?), you know I’m a big advocate of PJ’s, and today showed why. I think a lot of fans forget that he was born in Kentucky and UK was his dream school growing up. The fact that he’s had to hear some of the same fans he’s dreamed of playing in front of question his toughness breaks my heart a little bit, but the fact that he found a way to smile through it all makes me incredibly proud.
As for his status, he said he definitely wants to get back on the court, and at this point, it’s a matter of how much pain he can tolerate, which Calipari confirmed in the press conference.
“The Doc said, ‘You’re going to be in pain after the game if you do play, but you know how much pain can you deal with.’ He wants to play. Now, it’s can he play? We don’t know. We just don’t know yet.”
Given the fact that he played for an extended amount of time with a broken finger last year, I trust PJ when he says, “If I can play, I definitely will play.”
Kansas City is great, but where’s the Big Blue Nation?
I’ve kind of fallen in love with Kansas City, or at least, the Power & Light District, which has everything I need: a short walk to a nice arena that gives me free popcorn, a lap pool and a nice market for when I want to be healthy, and sports bars for when I don’t. All of that being said, where are you, Kentucky fans? I know it’s just Thursday and Kentucky plays super late tomorrow, but I’m going to need some more blue on the streets, stat. This weekend could be really, really fun.
Did you hear Nassir Little might have the flu?
One big story from today that’s flown under the radar: Nassir Little, North Carolina’s star freshman, has the flu and if the Tar Heels played today, Roy Williams said Little could not.
“Didn’t feel good last night. Was running a little bit of a temperature this morning. Didn’t feel like eating. I didn’t bring him over here to the arena with us. I have no idea. I can say it’s hard to make a 180-turn because there’s no way in the world he could play if we’re playing today. He’s sitting there and he has a plate in front of him. He felt — looked to me like it was hard to pick up the fork. And the last time I looked, it wasn’t that heavy. I don’t foresee making a decision until game time. But if he’s like he is now, there’s no way he can play.”
Let’s go Tigers!
Nick Richards says, “Watch This”
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) March 28, 2019
What’s more impressive, Nick’s trick shot or this Rubik’s Cube mural made by my nephew and his classmates at Toliver Elementary in Danville?
I mean, I know my answer, but I’m his aunt, so I’m biased.
I’ll leave you with this picture of Tyler Headband Herro, which my nephews will also love (look at me earning those brownie points).
Now, don’t let me down, Purdue.
By Mrs. Tyler Thompson on ©March 28th, 2019 @ 6:15pm
PJ Washington’s foot injury may have caused a meltdown in the Big Blue Nation — with some fans even lashing out at him on social media — but the Kentucky sophomore is choosing to find the humor in the situation.
“It’s been funny. It just funny to see everybody freaking out about it and the tweets they were sending and stuff like that. People DMing me, calling me. Everybody’s just been bugging me.”
The hysteria reached a crescendo yesterday when PJ tweeted out a video of himself walking with no cast or boot, which sparked the #PJChallenge online, with fans mimicking the walk on social media.
— Paul Washington Jr (@PJWashington) March 27, 2019
“I saw it yesterday,” PJ said of the #PJChallenge. “I didn’t even try to start it, so for it to start was kind of funny. I think Eric told me and I was just looking at him and laughing ever since.”
Interestingly, PJ said it wasn’t his idea to send out the video.
“No, it wasn’t,” he told me. “I kind of laughed a little bit and then was I like, maybe that’s a good idea. So I just did it and everybody went with it.”
It was nice to see PJ in good spirits — even with reporters mobbing him in the locker room — but you can tell this week has been tough on the sophomore.
“It’s been a lot. There’s been a lot of pressure — not pressure, but a lot of people talking. I really don’t care about that, I just want to make sure my health is where it needs to be then go out there and try to help my teammates.”
And for those questioning his will or desire, these quotes are for you.
“I definitely want to play in this tournament. It’s what I’ve been working on all year. So to sit out was definitely hard on me, but to see our guys winning it definitely picked me up a little bit.”
“If I can play, I definitely will play.”
PJ Washington isn’t ready to say whether or not he will play Friday night in Kentucky’s Sweet 16 game in Kansas City. The decision will come at game time, once Washington sees how his foot feels after another day of light basketball activity and rest.
John Calipari did not add much more to Washington’s playing status in his comments on Thursday; however, he did give us a small piece of news to consider in predicting Washington’s availability.
Calipari noted that doctors told Washington he can’t further injure himself by playing. “If that were the case,” Cal said, “I wouldn’t let him play.”
“The Doc said, ‘You’re going to be in pain after the game if you do play, but you know how much pain can you deal with.’ He wants to play. Now, it’s can he play? We don’t know. We just don’t know yet.”
The decision will ultimately come down to Washington, not Calipari, although Cal admitted he won’t play his star player if he isn’t at full speed.
“If he goes in and he’s 80 percent, then I won’t play him,” Cal said. “If he goes in, he plays well and he says ‘sub me,’ I’ll sub him. ‘I’m ready to go.’ I’ll put him back in.”
“If he’s terrific… what I did with Reid, I asked Reid, ‘How many minutes did I play you when you came back?’ He played 15, 18 minutes. If PJ plays more than that, I would be stunned, surprised. If he doesn’t play at all, I would not be surprised. So, we’ll just have to see.”
By Drew Franklin on ©March 28th, 2019 @ 3:20pm
PJ Washington was a late addition to Kentucky’s Sweet 16 press conference in Kansas City on Thursday. The plan was for Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis to represent the UK players at the podium, but a third place card was added at the last second to make room for Washington.
As expected, most of the questioning was directed toward Washington, mostly about his injury and playing status. Washington told reporters he “feels good” since having his cast removed on Tuesday, but he does not know if he will play Friday night against Houston.
“It’s good, I feel good,” he said. “It’s about going out there and seeing if I can do stuff on the court.”
For what it’s worth, Washington said he walked over to the arena from the hotel and the foot held up fine. As for the foot being ready for basketball, “I don’t know yet, it’s up in the air right now,” he said.
Once the players were done, John Calipari took a seat and opened up his press conference by asking the room, “Is PJ playing? Does anyone know? I don’t know.”
It was a beautiful morning for football in the Bluegrass.
KSR was at Kentucky’s eighth practice of the spring season. The sound of pads popping was spectacular. Here’s what I learned at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility:
1. A “Fluid” Situation at Defensive Back
After three years of steady play from UK’s secondary, Mark Stoops is preparing new stars to emerge. Only two have secured playing time, Davonte Robinson and Jordan Griffin. Outside of the two safeties, it’s a guessing game at corner.
Redshirt freshman Jamari Brown picked off the only pass in a team setting today. He has all of the physical tools, but made a few costly mental mistakes. His play sums up the corners well. Cedrick Dort, Stanley Garner, Taj Dodson and Yusuf Corker all provided a few good plays, while working through the bad. The mistakes are fixable, typically in zone coverage, and understandable as the JUCO transfers get their feet wet.
Brandin Echols was probably the most consistent cornerback. Like Derrick Baity, the JUCO transfer uses physicality to prevent the receiver from completing the pass. A few times I thought I saw Chris Westry on the field, when it actually was Quandre Mosely. They both are tall, lengthy players rocking No. 21. Mosely’s learning curve is a bit steeper than Echols. Primarily a safety in JUCO, he only played five games at corner last season.
There’s plenty more to discuss about Kentucky’s secondary, but I’ll save that for a later time.
2. Holy Smokes!
This kid is going to be good. Rodriguez swings a big hammer with a physical brand of running. Smoke has some of that, but he’s much more shifty in-between the tackles. He’s the kind of guy that runs into a pile of bodies, then suddenly squirms free and explodes 15 yards down the field. You’ll definitely see No. 20 on the field this fall.
3. Jon Sumrall and Kash Daniel are the Perfect Match
Kentucky’s defensive captain and his new coach are cut from the same cloth. Where Matt House leaned on X’s and O’s, Sumrall uses emotion to get more out of his players. When one contact drill lacked a little juice, Sumrall asked, “Can somebody knock them on their ass?” It didn’t take long for someone to respond.
Kash’s personality matches Sumrall’s, but that’s not the case for the young guys: Jamin Davis, Chris Oats, DeAndre Square and Tra Wilkins. Sumrall is the perfect person to help them come out of their shell to unleash hell on the opponent.
4. “You’re gonna break your neck!”
Vince Marrow’s line might have been the funniest thing I heard all day. C.J. Conrad told us learning to block is the Big Dog’s primary objective, and he wasn’t lying. Rigg, Upshaw and Bates spent most of their time in individuals hitting people. After watching today, I understand why the coaches are so high on Upshaw.
5. The Offensive Line Rundown
From left to right: Landon Young, Logan Stenberg, Drake Jackson, Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard.
After rotating in consistently throughout his freshman year, Kinnard is prepared to seamlessly fill Big George’s big shoes at right tackle. The bigger question is at right guard, Bunchy Stallings’ former position. Luke Fortner was called upon first, but expect Mason Wolfe to step in too.
6. Bowden is on Another Level
I deleted and retyped this sentence a dozen times and still can’t find the right words to articulate just how good Bowden looked in only two hours of action.
There’s a competitiveness, a dedication to being the best I’ve not seen in him before. He’s always been fast, but he’s never been able to break away so easily with one cut. Once simply the best athlete on the field, he’s transformed into the total package. Prepare to see plenty of amazing plays from Bowden this fall.
7. Bohanna is a Beast
Quinton Bohanna is a large human being. The anchor of Kentucky’s defensive line at nose guard, he leads a group that should fortify the front of UK’s defense. There is no drop-off at all in the six-man rotation. Even the ones who are fighting to get in, like Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald and Isaiah Gibson, are impressive athletes.
8. Terry’s Stepping Up
Terry “Touchdown” Wilson looks like somebody who won ten games as a starting quarterback in the SEC. A year ago, he was learning on the fly. Now he looks comfortable in the pocket, he’s making confident decisions and most importantly, he’s become the leader of the offense.
While Drake Jackson mans the offensive line, Terry is the consummate teammate for the young playmakers. Quick to give a word of encouragement after a mistake, the most telling moment of practice was a seemingly innocuous moment.
During one-on-ones, Josh Ali used a double-move down the sideline. He had just enough time to drop down a toe after making the catch for a 30+ yard gain. Wilson immediately tagged in Gunnar Hoak and went to the sidelines to thank and congratulate Ali for making the catch. Those little moments will make a big difference on Saturdays in the fall.
Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney spent the week talking trash to Louisville signee Samuell Williamson
By Jack Pilgrim on ©March 28th, 2019 @ 8:30am
For most elite high school basketball prospects in Atlanta for the McDonald’s All-American Game, time is best spent at the event mingling with friends, networking with celebrities and basketball legends, and competing against the best of the best in practices, scrimmages, and the big game.
Some recruit the remaining uncommitted prospects to their respective schools. Others get a head start on building chemistry with their future teammates both on and off the floor.
While future Kentucky Wildcats Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney made sure to accomplish all of the above in some form or fashion, they also wanted to make sure they had enough leftover time to accomplish arguably their most important goal of the trip: talking trash to Louisville signee Samuell Williamson.
Williamson, a five-star small forward out of Rockwall, TX, said the Kentucky duo was relentless this week in their bad-mouthing of the Louisville basketball program, but he was quick to return the banter.
“Oh yeah, we’ve been going back and forth all week,” Williamson said. “I was telling them that we’re going to come into Rupp Arena next year and get a win, but Tyrese and Kahlil weren’t having that.”
For Williamson, it’s nothing personal. He just sees it as the start of a light-hearted rivalry going into next season.
“It’s just been all fun and games, talking a little mess about next year,” he said. “This year we’re on the same team (in the McDonald’s Game), but next year we’re going to get a little rivalry going.”
Maxey, a Dallas, TX native, said the minimal distance between him and Williamson at home allows for maximum trash talk.
And when the future Cardinal talks to him about coming into Rupp Arena and leaving with a victory, Maxey is the first to let him know that history is not on his side when it comes to that argument.
“Sam lives 15 minutes away from me, so I get to talk about it all the time to him,” Maxey told KSR. “I think they’re coming to Rupp Arena next year too, so I’ve been telling him “You don’t want no smoke with us in Rupp.” That’s what I keep telling him about. I can’t wait to play against Sam.”
As for Kahlil Whitney, he says he has been just as involved in the smack talk as anyone this week in Atlanta. He’s ready to get to Lexington next season and be a part of one of the most intense rivalries in all of college basketball.
“We’ve been talking smack like the whole week,” he said. “It’ll be a fun matchup going against those guys next year.”
So who is going to win the epic battle of the bluegrass next season in Rupp Arena?
For Whitney, it’s an easy decision.
“Kentucky,” he said with a grin.
And for Maxey, it’s an absurd question to ask in the first place.
“What? What kind of question is that?” he said. “Big Blue Nation, man.”