Concern has been mounting that the Kentucky Wildcats' NCAA tournament could start off on the wrong foot since sophomore forward PJ Washington injured his foot against Tennessee in the semifinals of the SEC tournament on Saturday.
However, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, head coach John Calipari provided reassurance on Wednesday that Washington is expected to play in the Wildcats' tournament opener against Abilene Christian Thursday. Calipari said the injury is a sprain and noted that Washington saw a specialist, who assured him that he could not do more harm to his foot by playing.
Kentucky is seeded No. 2 in the Midwest region and will tip off against No. 15-seed Abilene Christian at 7 p.m. EST from Jacksonville, Florida.
Per Kentucky basketball's official Twitter account, Calipari added that X-rays and MRI tests on Washington's foot "came back good," and the 6'8" forward "wants to play."
This update in Washington's status is particularly encouraging for two reasons. First, Kyle Tucker of The Athletic had relayed on Tuesday that Washington had been in a boot since Sunday "for precautionary reasons."
More than that, Washington is the Wildcats' leading scorer (14.8 points per game) and rebounder (7.5 rebounds per game). His emergence as Kentucky's leader led Bleacher Report's David Kenyon to name him the country's Most Improved Player this season:
"The forward has become a more dangerous scorer. Last season, he attempted just 21 threes and made five (23.8 percent). This season, Washington has buried 30 triples in 71 attempts (42.3 percent) while elevating his free-throw clip from 60.6 to 67.3.
"Entering the season, Washington was an NBA draft afterthought. Five months later, he's a borderline lottery pick."
Before Washington can begin entertaining where he'll land in the NBA, Kentucky needs all of him to compete for its first national title since 2011-12.
Stranger things have happened, but it would be a shock for Abilene Christian to oust Calipari's Wildcats. However, the second round will present a challenge against either No. 7-seed Wofford, who last lost on Dec. 19 to No. 5-seed Mississippi State, or No. 10-seed Seton Hall, which was narrowly defeated by Villanova in the Big East tournament finals.
Following the loss to Tennessee on Saturday, Kentucky senior forward Reid Travis credited Washington's impact on the team to UK Athletics' Guy Ramsey. "PJ said it well at the end of the game: 'Pick your head up. We got a lot of basketball to play,'" Reid said. "Credit his leadership, his maturity for saying that because it's true."
How much basketball the Wildcats have left to play this season likely depends on the health and production of Washington.