Remember back earlier this season when many speculated that Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington was hurting his NBA Draft stock with his play?
Amazing how that changed with three straight double-doubles (the first by a UK player in five years) and five 20-point games in a six-game stretch after scoring 23 points in the win at Mississippi State last Saturday.
“The only player in the SEC who may have played better than PJ Washington the last few weeks is (Tennessee’s) Grant Williams. (Washington) is getting better each time he takes the floor,” Jon Rothstein, college basketball insider for CBS Sports, said.
Kentucky coach John Calipari insists NBA scouts are more impressed with Washington’s energy, athleticism and aggressiveness than they are his improved 3-point and foul shooting.
“I am trying to explain to a lot of these guys, not just PJ, that the ego stuff you care about doesn’t matter. It’s this stuff that you are evaluated on that matters,” Calipari said. “PJ is getting better. He is getting in better shape. When something goes wrong, he doesn’t go cool and act like it doesn’t matter. He bows his neck and just plays.
“The other thing is he is taking on challenges. You don’t know why the light goes on, but you see it and know it happens and you are just glad it happened.”
That’s why the UK coach was disappointed that Washington only had three rebounds to go with his 23 points against Mississippi State.
“He just can’t do that,” Calipari said. “He’s too good to just have three rebounds.”
South Carolina coach Frank Martin tried to recruit Washington out of high school. He’s certainly seen the light come on for Washington, who had 20 points against his team in a recent UK win.
“He is playing tremendous basketball,” Martin said. “He was really good in high school, had a real good freshman and now as a sophomore his understanding in better. You can see that in his pace, shooting ability, understanding where opportunities are. I can see that. He is a handful.”
Kentucky faces a SEC showdown with Tennessee Saturday night in Rupp Arena. The Volunteers have been terrific all season and many believe that junior Grant Williams is the top contender for SEC Player of the Year and senior Admiral Schofield is the other Tennessee player that gets the most national attention.
But don’t overlook guard Jordan Bone. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says the junior has “improved as much as anyone I’ve coached” and some even are making a case that Bone might be Tennessee’s most important player. He’s got an explosive first step that will certainly challenge UK freshman Ashton Hagans’s defensive ability and he has been terrific in transition. He’s also become a more consistent 3-point shooter in conference play.
He’s averaging about 13.5 points, 6.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game and could be the key to Saturday’s showdown.
“He’s really an integral part of this. I don’t think there is any question I have coached him as hard as any player I have ever coached,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We know point guard is the most important position and he is 2-1/2 years in the making. He is starting to connect the dots and get more consistent. I really believe his best basketball is ahead of him.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari has heaped praise on Tennessee all season … and that certainly hasn’t changed now that the game is almost here.
“Tennessee is just so good,” the UK coach said. “They don’t beat themselves. They play efficient on both sides. They’re physical. They’re experienced. They’ve got older players.”
Tennessee became the first team to be ranked No. 1 without a top 100 recruit since Oklahoma during the 2015-16 season. Oklahoma reached the Final Four that season. Tennessee’s highest ranked recruit is freshman D.J. Burns at 108 — and he’s being redshirted.
“They are terrific. They are the best team in the country,” Florida coach Mike White said after his team lost to Tennessee last Satur- day. “They are equally as good defensively as they are offensively. I think versatility, discipline, toughness and strength are words I would use to describe them on both side of the basketball. They defended us at a high level again. They are all very strong and can muscle you. Their bigs can move their feet. It is really a good combination. They are really good.”
Seeing cornerback Lonnie Johnson improve his NFL Draft status with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl did not surprise UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow.
“I have been saying Lonnie for a long time would get drafted high,” Marrow said. “He still has to go run (at the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 26-March 4 in Indianapolis) and do what he’s gonna do, but just from his practices at the Senior Bowl, a guy that’s 6-3, 210 and he’s going to run a 4.4,” Marrow said. “Just from the feedback I have been getting, he’s going to be a first round pick.”
That would give UK two first-round picks when the draft is held April 25-27 in Nashville, because it is a given that Josh Allen will not only be a first-round choice but will be a top five pick.
Marrow believes safety Darius West — one of eight Wildcats invited to the Combine — could surprise many.
“He will run a sub 4.38 (40) and has been a threeyear starter in the SEC,” Marrow said.
What about running back Benny Snell, UK’s alltime leading rusher?
“When you look at Benny, his film speaks for itself,” Marrow said. “Now will he run what they (NFL scout) think or surprise them and run faster (at the combine) and move up in the draft,” Marrow said.
“We have other guys who will be drafted. The first year we had maybe one guy (Bud Dupree) drafted. Now we should have at least five or six guys drafted. When you do that, then you can go compete with people that have seven or eight (players) drafted.”
Kentucky has eight players — Allen, Johnson, West, Snell, tight end C.J. Conrad, safety Mike Edwards, linebacker Jordan Jones and cornerback Derrick Baity —invited to the combine, it’s highest total ever. Only six schools — Alabama (11), Clemson (11), Ohio State (10), Georgia (9), Mississippi (9) and Washington (9)— had more players invited.
Marrow said NFL scouts told him and other UK coaches all season about how “different” the bodies were for UK seniors they had watched for four or five years.
“I remember one guy told me we would win 10 or 11 games and also said nine or 10 guys would get drafted,” Marrow said. “He actually called me after (UK beat) Penn State (in the Citrus Bowl) and told me we had NFL players now.”
Marrow said he’s going to watch all three days of the draft because he thinks Kentucky will have players drafted each day — something that has never happened before. He said he’s trying to talk Stoops into going to Nashville for the draft.
Freshman Tyler Herro continues to do plenty on the court to impress Kentucky fans. But he also does things in practice that impress coach John Calipari, like he did during a recent five-minute shooting drill.
Calipari said the most he thinks any UK player had made before was 73 by Kyle Wiltjer and the normal is around 65 to 67.
“Coach (Tony) Barbee, stood next to Tyler so they (UK managers) kept throwing Tony the ball and he would throw it to him and he’d shoot and shoot and shoot so he was getting off 18-20 more shots (than most players),” Calipari said.
“He made 83 before Florida in five minutes. Can you imagine? Threes. Today, he made 95. Ninety-five shots made in five minutes. Probably shot 100 shots and missed five.”
Herro is one of just four players in the country and the only freshman averaging at least 15 points per game on the road while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
Kentucky lost starting left offensive tackle Landon Young to a knee injury just before last season started. The former Lexington Lafayette standout had been a part-time starter and solid contributor for two years before having to miss all of last season.
Young has not been available to the media since his injury in August and has not really given any updates on his status even on social media. Several people close to Young have indicated his rehab has gone well, and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops basically endorsed that last week.
”Landon is doing really good. I sat down with him yesterday, and he’s got another test coming up to check the strength in there, and he’s almost full go, fully released,” Stoops said. “Obviously there’s no reason for us to force anything with him. We have plenty of time. But he’s done very well, and you can see the change in him and his upper body strength.
“That’s one positive to that, that he had the year off so he could really spend some time in the weight room and get stronger.”
She’s been competing in gymnastics since age 6, so what will University of Kentucky senior gymnast Alex Hyland do when her All-American career ends in a few months with the Cats hopefully competing in the national championship again?
“That is a good question. It is going to feel really weird. I have tried to envision what it is going to look like. Obviously I won’t be able to do gymnastics but I would love to coach a little bit so I can still be around the sport and help kids get to where I got,” said Hyland. “Hopefully I get to come back a bunch and see the girls I am teammates with now competing in the years ahead.”
She’s confident she’s going to coach and physical therapy school is a possibility.
“I want to be a strength and conditioning coach,” Hyland said.
Is she mean enough, tough enough to do that given her personality?
“Some of them are mean, but ours isn’t. I will have to learn to be tougher, though. It’s not my personality,” she admitted.
She’s one of only six UK gymnasts ever to earn All- American honors, one of only three to have won an individual SEC championship, one of 15 to have earned all-SEC honors and one of 15 to have qualified for an individual berth in the NCAA Championship.
“Freshman year we set some records but then sophomore year is when we really hit the point where we wanted to be. We were getting high team scores and setting so many records,” Hyland said. “It was a season of highlights and we knew Kentucky gymnastics was going somewhere. Last year was just kind of the icing on the cake making it to nationals.”
She knows she’ll miss the competition — something she thrives on — especially when the 2019-20 gymnastics season starts. Last week she was a major reason Kentucky got its second highest score in program history in a win over LSU. She scored a season-high 39.525 in the all-around competition. She tied a career-high 9.900 to win bar, tied a career mark of 9.900 in floor routine. Hyland also tied a season-high with a 9.875 on vault.
“It will be weird to be watching my teammates on TV from back home,” Hyland, who is from Massachusetts, said. “It’s just going to be weird to not walk into practice and have assignments and compete and travel with my coaches all the time like I have been for four years. They will just be a phone call away, though. It’s all going to be weird to not be around all these people I have been for years here now.”
Hyland will also miss watching other UK athletes perform. She goes to softball and baseball games in the spring after her season ends and volleyball before her season starts. She also enjoys watching women’s soccer.
Is there a team at UK with better athletes than the gymnastics team has?
“That is a hard question. They are all good athletes. We just do different stuff, so it is hard to compare,” Hyland said. “I love the women’s soccer team. I am close to a lot of them and I have a lot of respect for what they do.”
Hyland knows most fans don’t understand the work gymnasts put in daily and do for years and years.
“I think people think of gymnastics as a graceful sport and one that is not hard on your body. It is really hard on your body,” the UK senior said. “We wake up at 6 in the morning, have practice at 7, go at it for 3 hours, have (weight) lift and treatment. I have broken three or four bones, had one surgery on my ankle. Just muscle tears here and there.”
Yet she’s been an All- American gymnast and SEC honor roll student.
“That’s the hard part and why we wake up early. There is time in the day to compete and get your academics done. You just have to sacrifice something,” Hyland said. “You can’t sleep in, you have to really study when you have a chance and take advantage of your time.”
Quote of the Week: “I thought he did good. I would like to see him get some live action out of the locker room sometimes. He could be even a little more authentic,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on linebacker Kash Daniel’s part in the Super Bowl TV ad on Kentucky football.
Quote of the Week 2: “Thanks Mike, you are still one of my favorite players to ever watch. Always said you were the complete player. (Former Tennessee) Coach (Ray) Mears always told me you were the reason he quit playing his 1-3-1 zone and went to a 1-2-2. Said no one ever picked the 1-3-1 apart like you,” Wayne County coach Rodney Woods, a former Vol, after Mike Pratt congratulated him on his 900th career win.
Quote of the Week 3: “No one hates us. Why is there laughter there? So people do hate us, hate me. They don’t hate me, do they? Why would they hate me? What have I done?” Kentucky coach John Calipari on opposing fans not liking him or Kentucky.