Last Updated: 2019-03-27
To cap off what should be an exciting, and hopefully profitable two nights of Sweet Sixteen action, the final ticket to the Elite Eight will be punched Friday night, at the Sprint Center, in Kansas City, MO; as Kelvin Sampson and the three-seeded Houston Cougars look to upset the John Calipari and his Blue-blooded two-seed Kentucky Wildcats – who will be laying three points.
The big story here is the looming question that has yet to be answered: will star Sophomore F P.J. Washington make his return to Kentucky’s lineup? Washington sprained his foot in the SEC Tournament, causing him to miss the first two rounds thus far, and the latest reports still have him questionable, but supposedly losing his cast today, which he has worn since the injury.
Kentucky has done enough to get themselves to the Sweet Sixteen without him but playing a team of the caliber of Houston (12th KenPom) is a little different, and is an major upgrade from the talent they saw in the first two rounds of the Tournament, vs. Abilene Christian (153rd) and Wofford (18th). Obviously, updates on his status are crucial in determining a proper course of action for this game, but until he’s announced in or out, a piece in the handicap will be missing.
The Wildcats had what essentially amounted to a “walk-through” in Round One, nearly doubling-up Abilene Christian, 79-44. Freshman SF Keldon Johnson was the player to step up most in Washington’s absence in this game, going for 25 points in a 63% shooting performance from the field. Kentucky destroyed Abilene on boards, hauling in 44 rebounds to their 17, and shot 62% inside compared to the Wildcats’ 40. It was clearly a mismatch in height and athleticism that was nothing more than a warmup game from a team in a different class.
In the Round of 32, however, Kentucky was more than tested by a Wofford team that hadn’t lost since mid-December, in a game that was neck-and-neck, and down-to-the-wire; but Kentucky would prevail, winning, 62-56, as a five-and-a-half-point favorite. This game was one by the Wildcats at the free-throw line, where they made 17 of 20 attempts (85%), while only allowing nine attempts to Wofford. It was Reid Travis who helped fill the void left by Washington in this one, going for 14 points, with 11 rebounds, contributing to another dominant performance on the glass for the Wildcats (36-28 rebounds).
As the competition steps up yet another notch, one has to wonder if Kentucky has the talent to get by one more time without Washington, against a Houston team that has only lost three times this entire year.
Houston had a warm-up game of its own in Round One, blowing out the Sun Belt Champion, Georgia State, 84-55, behind star Senior G Corey Davis’s 26 points. The Cougars won this game on the defensive end of the floor more than anywhere, however, holding Georgia State to an atrocious 30% from the floor, and dominating the boards, 51-27. It was another win vs. a weak conference, but the questions that remained about whether Houston, out of the AAC, could compete in the NCAA Tournament with an elite conference, was answered in Round Two, vs. Ohio State (42nd).
The Cougars were impressive against the Buckeyes, who were mediocre in the Big Ten (8-12), winning, 74-59, in another dominant defensive performance. Houston held Ohio State to 45% inside, 35% from three, and won rebounding by six. Going only 5-19 (26%) from downtown, and 68% from the free-throw line themselves, it was eye-opening to see Houston win a game by 16 points on such an off-night, shooting. As a team that has shot 36% from three (113th), and 70% (189th) from the line, the Cougars certainly aren’t a great team in terms of shot percentage, but are better than they were in easy victory over the Buckeyes.
In breaking down the matchup between Houston and Kentucky, one must question what kind of shooting performance we can expect from the Cougar offense (20th), against a Kentucky defense (9th) that has only allowed 47% from the field on the year (23rd), and only 44% inside (7th).
Though top-notch inside, if there is one area of the Kentucky D that can be exploited, it is on the perimeter (178th), where it allows a near 36% of its total points to be scored (59th). In terms of point distribution, the Houston offense, led by: Corey Davis (1st AAC Offensive Rating, KenPom), and Junior SF Armoni Brooks (6th AAC, 3P%), relies on three’s (78th) much more so than two’s (264th), so it is feasible that the Cougs could find some success from downtown if they attack the perimeter, which they likely will. Perhaps a minor edge to Houston unaccounted for in the number.
The Kentucky Offense (11th), is one that, unlike Houston, relies much more on points inside (52nd) than outside (342nd), where they shoot an above average 52.8% (72nd). It is important to note that P.J. Washington (54% inside) played a huge part in this percentage, and if he is unable to go, Kentucky’s offense will assuredly suffer.
In terms of matchup, Houston’s defense (12th) isn’t a great one at all for the Wildcats; for the Cougars allow only 45% of their points from inside (305th), in holding teams to 42.7% on the year (5th). And while Houston allows a much greater percentage of their point from outside, they boast the number one 3P% defense in the nation, which could force a one-dimensional Kentucky offense even more so into that dimension.
If it wasn’t for the height disadvantage (33rd to 271st), I’d say Houston’s defense has quite a hidden advantage over the Kentucky O, but their undersized forwards could hurt them a bit in this regard. Kentucky has been dominant on the glass in the first two rounds, and Houston’s lack of height creates some concern, but the Cougars have been solid on both the offensive (21st) and defensive glass (62nd), and they have the athleticism to jump with the Wildcats.
Pick: Houston 3 -110
If Kentucky is without Washington, it would be very difficult for me to look any way other than Houston in this game. If Washington does give it a go, this becomes more of a lean, but it would be hard for me to imagine P.J. being one-hundred percent even if he does go, so I’d still be looking towards Houston.
The Cougars are an experienced team (142nd), starting three Seniors, and a Junior; a factor that always plays a role against teams like Kentucky, that are mostly made up of one-and-done Freshman. In fact, Kentucky is the least experienced team in the entire country.
Sure, Houston will likely have to hit some shots from the perimeter to exploit the primary weakness of the Kentucky Defense, but even if they don’t shoot to their 36% average on the year, their defense is one capable of keeping them in games. As the number one field goal percentage defense in the nation, Houston should force Kentucky to rely on its size and presence on the interior to keep pace, but the absence of Washington, or even a less than 100% Washington takes away some if not a lot of this advantage.’
It’s been 15 years since Kelvin Sampson has taken a team to the Elite Eight (2003, Oklahoma), and 35 years since Houston has advanced passed the Sweet Sixteen; but this is Sampson’s best team since appearing in the 2002 Final Four, and in getting a version of Kentucky made vulnerable by a hobbled star, this feels like the year for both Sampson and Houston to make return to Elite Eight prominence.
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