Houston Cougars (33-3) vs. Kentucky Wildcats (29-6)
Game time: Friday, March 29, 9:59 p.m. ET
Location: Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO
Where to watch: TBS
Spread: Kentucky -3
No. 2 seed Kentucky can only get by so many games without the help of P.J. Washington. With his status still in question after his cast came off Wednesday, it’s difficult to back the Wildcats with confidence as they now face their toughest competition of the NCAA tournament.
Regular-season AAC conference leader Houston only suffered three losses on the season: one against Temple on the road, one at home to UCF, and a 69-57 defeat to Cincinnati in the AAC conference tournament. The Cougars faced just the 42nd toughest schedule in the nation, however.
Kentucky played the ninth-most difficult schedule in one of the toughest conferences and ended up second in the SEC. The Wildcats’ NET ranking is 6th, just two below Houston at the No. 4 spot. At full strength, the Wildcats should be an easier pick over Kelvin Sampson’s squad, but without Washington, UK will need to perform at the top of its game.
Houston’s star in the tournament thus far has been Corey Davis Jr. Through two games, the senior guard scored 47 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. The Cougars defense is also one of the best in the nation (7th in scoring defense with 61.0 points allowed per game). Kentucky comes in at 28th in scoring defense, giving up 64.5 per points per contest.
UK isn’t much of a three-point shooting team, so Houston’s nation-leading three-point defense isn’t all too much of a factor. However, the Cougars also rank No. 1 in field-goal percentage defense, keeping their competition to 36.7 percent shooting from the field. Kentucky, by comparison, is 26th in the nation with a 40.3 percent opponent field-goal average.
Reid Travis will need to continue his stretch of scoring in the tournament for the Wildcats offense. He tallied 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting against Abilene Christian and 14 points against Wofford. He also grabbed 20 rebounds over the course of those two games.
Without Washington to help Kentucky, the game should be close, just as it was against Wofford. But the Wildcats proved they could shut down the Terriers’ best player, forcing three-point specialist Fletcher Magee to go 0-12 from behind the arc. The Wildcats also shot 17-of-20 from the free-throw line. If Kentucky can contain Davis, it has a good chance of squeaking past Houston as well.
Even if Washington comes back, he won’t be at full strength. Don’t let his presence fool you. Kentucky should win, but this one may come down to a basket or free throw. Take Houston +3 to be safe.
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