As the Kentucky Wildcats went through a casual shoot-around the day before their opening game of the NCAA tournament, complete with a blaring band and thousands of blue-clad fans watching every move, something was missing.
Their best player.
PJ Washington, a rare sophomore amid John Calipari’s latest batch of fabulous freshmen, sprained his left foot in Kentucky’s loss to Tennessee at the Southeastern Conference tournament last weekend.
Washington didn’t travel with the team to Jacksonville and missed their final workout for the opener against Abilene Christian. He was scheduled to arrive later Wednesday after seeing a foot specialist.
Calipari insisted it was nothing serious, really just an annoyance for the second-seeded Wildcats (27-6).
“If you know me, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, let’s go get one more level of this,'” the coach said. “We sent him to the specialist to make sure he can’t harm himself. But we expect him to play.”
Washington, who broke from the usual bluegrass protocol by sticking around for a second season, leads Kentucky in scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounding (7.6).
But, with plenty of talent around him, it’s probably not imperative that he play against Abilene Christian, the No. 15 seed from the Southland Conference.
The only thing these teams share is a nickname. The team from Texas is also the Wildcats, but this is their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
“We could play Kentucky — I don’t know, man, 10,000 times? — we might win once,” said coach Joe Golding of Abilene Christian (27-6). But, he added, “If we can find a way to keep this thing close and give ourselves a chance the last 10 minutes, you never know. That’s when the madness happens.”
The other first-round games Thursday in the Midwest Regional are No. 7 seed Wofford (29-4) vs. No. 10 Seton Hall (20-13) in Jacksonville, while No. 5 Auburn (26-9) takes on No. 12 New Mexico State (30-4) and No. 4 Kansas (25-9) faces No. 13 Northeastern (23-10) in Salt Lake City.
Here are some storylines to watch:
TERRIERS ARE NO UNDERDOGS: Usually, the champion of the Southern Conference arrives at the NCAA with few expectations.
Not so with Wofford.
These Terriers are expected to make some noise after romping through their league with an 18-0 record — most of them blowouts — before winning the Southern Conference tournament. They arrived in Jacksonville riding a 20-game winning streak and boasting the highest seed ever for a team from their mid-major league.
“The hype has built the past couple months of the season, so we’ve kind of gotten used to it in a way,” senior center Matthew Pegram said, “but we’re just going to try to approach it just like any other game.”
For Wofford star Fletcher Magee, it almost feels like a home game. He is a native of Orlando, about a two-hour drive from Jacksonville.
“It’s really cool because a lot of my family and friends can come up,” said Magee, who is averaging 20.5 points a game.
ROLE REVERSAL: Auburn coach Bruce Pearl calls his team “the New Mexico State of the SEC.” If Pearl keeps the Tigers pointed in the right direction, maybe in a few more decades, they will be.
This will be the 22nd appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the Aggies, who have resided in, among others, the Missouri Valley, the Big West, Sun Belt and the Western Athletic conferences, and enjoyed their fair share of success in all of them.
Auburn is making only its 10th trip to March Madness, and this is the first time the Tigers have made it in consecutive years since 1999-2000, when Cliff Ellis was their coach.
Both teams are coming in with conference tournament championships and big winning streaks: Auburn’s is at eight games and New Mexico State’s is at 19.
But what Pearl was really talking about was the teams’ style of play. Auburn is fast, plays pressure defense, likes to shoot the 3 and goes deep into its bench. New Mexico State does pretty much all that, too.
Exhibit A: Auburn (1,052) and New Mexico State (952) each took more than 200 more 3-point shots than the next-highest team in their respective conferences.
“We haven’t played a team like New Mexico State unless we’ve gone up against ourselves” in practice, Pearl said.
And in a way, the Aggies haven’t seen a team quite like Auburn.
“It’s going to be like walking out into the cold for the first time in winter and just trying to adjust,” coach Chris Jans said. “We’ll have to adjust to athleticism and quickness once the ball is tipped.”
SEASON NOT LOST: Simply because they’re unburdened by lofty expectations doesn’t mean the Kansas Jayhawks shouldn’t feel any pressure.
“There’s always pressure to perform at a place like ours,” coach Bill Self said. “And certainly, I don’t want that to leave. I want our guys to accept that and know that’s how it is when you play here.”
This is the first time in 15 seasons that Kansas will come into the tournament without winning the regular-season conference championship. Injuries, absences and inexperience — to say nothing of the FBI investigation into corruption in college hoops that has included its fair share of Kansas connections — have turned this into one of the rockiest seasons in Self’s 16 years at the school.
But the coach still has dreams for the Jayhawks, and he’s not afraid to share them.
“I think I know what this team is capable of,” he said, “and I think we’re capable of doing some great things in this tournament.”