The discussion for this Game will revolve mostly around PJ Washington and if Kentucky can advance without him. Not many reports have Kentucky’s leading scorer as likely to return for this Game so that’s how it’s best to view it. Even if Washington plays, he won’t be 100% mere days after getting a cast removed from his foot. That being the case, Big Blue Nation is still all over the Wildcats as they were -2.5 point favorites as of Tuesday at 5Dimes Sportsbook.
The margin for error is slim for Kentucky without Washington as he leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Without him, the Wildcats escaped past Wofford helped by their defense that allowed just 56 points and 8-for-27 shooting from three. Defense will be key again because it’s hard to see the shorthanded offense going off against Houston.
The Cougars aren’t in a power conference, but they can’t be overlooked with just three losses all season. They have a deep, talented roster that will give fits to anything Kentucky tries to do. While the Wildcats thrive on offensive rebounding, that’s something Houston does well and ranked first in the AAC. There aren’t any major advantages in the underlying stats, though Kentucky’s ability to draw fouls could come into play even if Washington is the best at doing that.
Without Washington, Reid Travis is UK’s main post threat as EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards are simply there for defense and rebounding. That worked against Wofford, but Houston just kept Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson in check and has the bodies to throw at Travis with Breaon Brady and Fabian White leading the way. And while UK had an athletic edge in the backcOurt against Wofford, that’s not the case against Houston, which is also slightly deeper. To win and cover, the Wildcats will need more from Tyler Herro, who went 2-for-11 from the field against Wofford, but also Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans to remain offensive threats. Both have been excellent defenders this season, but inconsistent on the offensive end and that’s not going to cut it without Washington. Otherwise, backers will hope Jemarl Baker comes off the bench and hits some shots, which he did last round. For a guy that averages less than 10 minutes per Game, that’s not a good strategy.
As for Houston, Corey Davis is maybe the most underrated guard remaining in the Tournament after dropping 47 points, 13 boards and eight assists in the first two Games. He’ll likely draw the defense of Hagans, but the Cougars aren’t a one-man show. Galen Robinson is more of the creator with 4.9 assists per Game, while Armoni Brooks is Houston’s other scorer at 13.2 points per Game and team-best 38.6% from three. Unlike Kentucky, which rarely sways from its three guards, Houston has able bodies in Dejon Jarreau and Nate Hinton that regularly come off the bench and make an impact, especially if foul trouble comes about.
At the end of the day, if the team names were switched, this Game would be closer to a pick ‘em. Kentucky has the better metrics, but that’s with Washington in the lineup. Without him, everything changes because his replacement is a big man that doesn’t stretch the floor or ask for the ball on the offensive end. For Kentucky to win, Herro and Johnson will need to play great, while also staying strong defensively. If Washington doesn’t play, backing the Cougars probably makes a little more sense with plenty of talent and a much deeper roster.
Our Pick – Houston +3