JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The arena fell silent for a moment as Kentucky’s Nick Richards lay on the floor late in a 79–44 win against Abilene Christian Thursday night. Advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament was never in doubt. But the question as Richards writhed in pain after being undercut by Hayden Farquhar while leaping for a rebound, was a little more far-reaching: How many healthy big men would Kentucky have by the night’s end? Star PJ Washington spent Thursday on the bench in street clothes, wearing a hard cast on his sprained right foot. Kentucky couldn’t afford to lose another big.
“That's why I said, ‘Move your arm around.’ He did,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “So I said ‘You’re all right. Rub some dirt in it. Let’s get going. Let’s go.” Richards shook off the hard fall and kept playing, and Big Blue Nation breathed a small sigh of relief.
Calipari reiterated Thursday that the injury Washington suffered in an SEC tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee was not a fracture and that doctors elected to swap a walking boot for a hard cast to speed the healing process. But Calipari did not seem optimistic that Washington would be available for Kentucky’s game against the winner of Thursday’s Seton Hall-Wofford matchup.
“Whether they'll take it off tomorrow to check it, I don't know,” Calipari said. “If they don’t, he won’t play Saturday, and then they’ll probably try to take it off Tuesday or Wednesday of next week to see how his foot feels.”
With Washington probably out on Saturday, the Wildcats will likely rely again on the tandem of EJ Montgomery and Richards. The 6’10”, 225-pound Montgomery scored three points and grabbed 11 rebounds Thursday while committing four fouls. Richards committed three fouls in five minutes, 18 seconds of first-half action, but he settled in the second half, scoring all eight of his points and committing zero fouls.
The level of competition will rise significantly Saturday for the Wildcats, who had no trouble against an Abilene Christian team making its first tournament appearance. Kentucky didn’t play Wofford this season, but the Wildcats lost 84–83 in overtime to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 8.
Even without Washington, Kentucky has enough to advance to the Sweet 16 if the Wildcats play well. After all, this isn’t even the first time in the past month that Kentucky has had to play without an injured big man. The Wildcats played five games without senior Reid Travis (sprained knee) and went 4–1 during that stretch.
“Unfortunately [Washington] is out, and we’re happy to have him back when he gets healthy and all that, but we had guys build their confidence over the last couple of weeks with me being out,” Travis said. “I thought it was good. Guys stepped up and we were able to play good minutes.”
They’ll need to do it again Saturday.