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WATCH: Keldon Johnson serenades Kentucky’s locker room

WATCH: Keldon Johnson serenades Kentucky’s locker room

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:

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.

Kentucky and Auburn will tip at 2:20 p.m. on Sunday

Kentucky and Auburn will tip at 2:20 p.m. on Sunday

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!

Cats survive close call in Sweet 16 (Thank you, Tyler Herro)

Cats survive close call in Sweet 16 (Thank you, Tyler Herro)

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.

SCOUTING REPORT, presented by State Farm agent Lance Taylor: Houston Cougars

SCOUTING REPORT, presented by State Farm agent Lance Taylor: Houston Cougars

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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.

Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

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.

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.

Backcourt Breakdown

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.

Frontcourt Breakdown

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.

What the…???

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.

PJ Washington’s poise and other notes from Kansas City

PJ Washington’s poise and other notes from Kansas City

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”

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).

© Jay Biggerstaff | USATSI

Now, don’t let me down, Purdue.

Eight Observations from UK Spring Practice

Eight Observations from UK Spring Practice

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.