Washington out for Kentucky; Abilene Christian embracing underdog role

Field Level Media

Abilene Christian and Kentucky share the Wildcats nickname, but they have little else in common going into their first-round NCAA Tournament meeting Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla.

No. 15 seed Abilene Christian (27-6) is in the tournament for the first time, while second-seeded Kentucky (27-6) is entered for an NCAA-record 58th time.

"Why wouldn't we play Kentucky?" Abilene Christian coach Joe Golding said of the Midwest Region matchup. "They've got Hall of Fame head coaches -- including the one there now -- and five-star recruits up and down their lineup."

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One of those talented players, star power forward PJ Washington, will be on the sideline Thursday in a cast protecting his sprained foot. Washington was hurt in an SEC tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee on Saturday.

Head coach John Calipari said Wednesday that Washington wanted to play, but he sent him to see a specialist.

"The specialists confirmed our original diagnosis that PJWashington has a sprained foot and there is no fracture. Once we determined that PJ was not going to play today, they put him in a hard cast for precautionary reasons. He is out for today's game," Calipari said via Twitter on Thursday morning.

Washington, a sophomore, is averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds this season. He was a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection and is viewed as an NBA first-round draft choice should he decide to leave school.

This is Kentucky's seventh time as a No. 2 seed. Overall, it has won 24 of its last 25 NCAA openers, holding a 47-10 all-time mark in its first outings of an NCAA Tournament.

For Calipari, the tradition of the opponent doesn't really matter.

"Everybody's playing for their life and survival," Calipari said. "We have to get through Abilene Christian. That's all I'm worried about right now."

Abilene Christian won the Southland Conference tournament. The team has tied a program record for victories that was set in the 1979-80 season.

Yet a tournament matchup with Kentucky takes the program to a different level.

"I'm sure they have no idea where Abilene, Texas, is, and I'm sure they're not worried about little ol' Abilene Christian," said Golding, who earned a $1,000 bonus by reaching the tournament. "But we're going to use this opportunity to give the nation a window into this great university and this team and these players, and we'll get out on the floor and compete hard for 40 minutes and see what happens."

Abilene Christian has been a Division I team since the 2013-14 season. This was only its second season of eligibility for the "Big Dance" at this level.

So it has been a fast rise for Abilene Christian. In some ways, it's just in time.

"We wanted to be the first team at Abilene Christian to make the tournament," said senior guard Jaylen Franklin. "It's a big surprise, but we stuck through it and trusted each other."

Abilene Christian has hit 38.8 percent of its 3-point attempts, rating 18th in the country. That catches Calipari's attention.

"If they make 20, then we lose in the first round," he said.

Calipari said he's telling his young team to not worry about potential future matchups because most of them won't happen anyway. Plus, he just wants to make sure his team advances.

"We're only focused on the first game and go from there, kind of just have tunnel vision," said Kentucky forward Reid Travis, a graduate transfer from Stanford who'll be in his first NCAA Tournament. "Kind of just go in a hole and just really worry about the next game up, so for us looking at potential matchups and things like that, we're not really looking too far ahead."

Kentucky was knocked out of the Southeastern Conference tournament in the semifinals by Tennessee. For Calipari, an assignment on Thursday is ideal because it gets his team back in action as soon as possible.

"Every team, it's who is playing well," Calipari said. "It's just trying to survive game to game."

The winner will meet the Wofford-Seton Hall winner in Saturday's second round.

--Field Level Media

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