A spot in the Midwest Region finals is up for grabs Friday night when the 2 seed Kentucky Wildcats face the 3 seed Houston Cougars. With the game in Kansas City, the Wildcats are listed as 3-point favorites.
All has gone according to plan for Houston thus far. Despite losing the American Conference Tournament finals to Cincinnati, the Cougars have quickly bounced back in the NCAA Tournament with comfortable wins over Georgia State and Ohio State. They are now 33-3 on the season as they prepare for the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 1984.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year and eighth time this decade. Kentucky demolished Abilene Christian in the first round but had to survive a stiff challenge from Wofford in the Round of 32. In the end, Kentucky’s defense rose to the occasion in the 62-56 win over Wofford to send them to the Sweet 16.
Almost Full Strength
Hanging over Kentucky’s head going into this game is the status of forward PJ Washington. The sophomore is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder but had to miss the first two rounds of the tournament with a foot injury. The good news is that Washington is out of the cast he was wearing last weekend. However, Kentucky coach John Calipari isn’t sure if Washington will be able to play on Friday. If nothing else, Washington’s minutes will be limited, and he will likely be playing in pain if he does make it onto the court.
The good news for the Wildcats is that Houston is one of the smaller teams in the tournament. All of Houston’s top scorers are guards, and no one on the roster who averages more than 10 minutes a game is taller than 6’8’’. That could make Washington a serious weapon in the paint if he’s able to play. Of course, any impact he makes could be minimized if he’s limited to 15 minutes of action.
A New Challenge
As mentioned, Kentucky’s defense was masterful last time out against Wofford, holding an elite shooting team to under 30% shooting from the perimeter and a total of 56 points. But the Cougars present a different kind of challenge. Houston has several capable outside shooters, but no one who stands out. They’ve also shot under 30% from 3-point range in their first two tournament games.
However, Houston’s strength is in attacking the basket. Corey Davis Jr. has been outstanding the last two games, scoring over 20 points against both Georgia State and Ohio State after averaging 17 points per game during the regular season. Forward Fabian White has also provided an extra scoring source inside. The X-factor for the Cougars is Armoni Brooks. He and Davis have formed a potent scoring tandem most of the season, but his scoring has been wildly inconsistent despite averaging 13 points per game. His contributions against Kentucky’s good defensive guards could decide this game.
All About the Defense
Both of these teams can get after it on the defensive end, and while both have good offensive players, this is likely to be a close, low-scoring game. With Washington’s status still uncertain, bet on Houston to at least beat the 3-point spread, even if Kentucky is able to pull off a close win.