KANSAS CITY — The most-discussed number of this Midwest Regional has not been a statistic but an estimation. In every appearance before the media these past three days, Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington has been asked to quantify the pain in his left foot, which he sprained two weeks ago during the SEC tournament, an injury that had sidelined him for the Wildcats’ last two games before he returned to action Friday. It had been a 10 out of 10 at its worst, and down to a two out of 10 by the Sweet 16 game against Houston, then back to a 10 when the game finished. And so Saturday, when Washington met with a rapt flock of reporters, one of the first questions he was asked was, well, you know.
“This morning it was about a five,” he said. With that the day’s biggest, most subjective, and surest-to-change news was broken. Washington added that he expects to play in Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup with Auburn. Surely by now he expects to be asked to grade his pain afterward, too.
The persistence of the inquiries is understandable. Washington is the most essential player on this second-seeded Kentucky team, a 6'8" All-SEC first-teamer who can score from inside and out and has grown into one of this perennially young squad’s emotional leaders. His hard cast having been removed on Tuesday, his availability is now a matter of pain management (rather than re-injury risk), and his performance in Friday’s narrow 62–58 win—16 points in 26 minutes off the bench, plus a decisive late-game block—made only more stark his value to the Wildcats’ national title hopes. Now it’s a question of whether, some 38 hours after that game ended, he can muster that same effectiveness to push Kentucky into the Final Four and past a blazing hot Auburn team that just buried top-seeded North Carolina under a hail of threes.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, have been winning games of the more old-fashioned-grind variety; their win over Houston had a whopping 17 fewer possessions than Auburn’s win over the Tar Heels, a difference of roughly 23%. Up until Washington first checked into that game, less than five minutes into the first half, there was uncertainty even among some teammates whether he would actually see action. The pain in his foot had been too bad to even take part in that morning’s shootaround. Hours later he was surprising his fellow Wildcats by dunking during warmups, a promising sign, but caution still governed their outlook.
Once on the floor Washington did not seem at all hesitant. On his first touch he posted up and scored from the right block, then broke back down the court to play defense. He wound up playing all of the game’s final 12 minutes, helping stave off a near-collapse and swatting an attempted layup with 35 seconds left to set up Tyler Herro’s go-ahead three on the other end. “That’s not strategy,” Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne said afterward. “That’s not X-and-O. That is a will to win.”
In the locker room afterward, his left foot bound heavily in ice as the pain continued to ratchet up the scale, Washington said he would grade his performance as a B-minus. Head coach John Calipari was more bluntly complimentary. “We don’t win the game [Friday] without him,” he said. “We don’t.”
On Sunday, Washington will face an Auburn team against which he has excelled in two Kentucky wins this season, first with 13 points and seven rebounds on Jan. 19 and then with 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting in a Feb. 23 blowout. The latter game, in Lexington, was the nadir from which the Tigers’ current 11-game winning streak rose. “We got punked that game,” Auburn junior Danjel Purifoy said. “We were hungry after that. We got tired of being called soft. We wanted to change that.” Since only barely surviving New Mexico State in this tournament’s first round, the Tigers have appeared not only improved but dominant. A No. 5 seed, they beat No. 4 seed Kansas by 14 and then No. 1 seed North Carolina by 17, making a total of 30 three-pointers (on 67 tries) over the two wins.
They are perhaps the hottest team remaining in the field, but they are no longer a complete one. In Friday’s win the Tigers lost star sophomore forward Chuma Okeke to a left knee injury that was revealed on Saturday to be a torn ACL, a fact Okeke’s teammates learned from an outburst of social media reports while at the arena awaiting their media session. It is a loss that devastates both emotionally and strategically, though clearly the former has weighed heaviest on the Tigers since watching their teammate go down. Replacing the production of Okeke, a legitimate NBA prospect who can guard any position and appeared to be peaking at the perfect time, will not be easy. Purifoy made four threes off the bench Friday, his second double-figure scoring effort of the season; he and senior center Horace Spencer are both candidates to see extended minutes in Okeke’s stead.
“There’s no drop-off when it comes to our bench,” Purifoy said. “It’s a heartbreaking situation, but we can’t stop. We’re gonna keep playing for Chuma.”
The on-court goal, Purifoy said, will be to wear the Wildcats out by playing at the kind of furious pace of the Tigers’ upset of North Carolina. The crack at Kentucky is one Auburn had been hoping for in this month’s SEC tournament championship, when Tennessee beat the Wildcats in the semifinals (meaning the Tigers instead played the Volunteers, whom they beat by 20). Now they will get it on an even bigger stage. “We wanted revenge on them,” Auburn guard J'Von McCormick said Saturday. To get it the Tigers will have to move on without their star forward, and go through Kentucky’s.