By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
KANSAS CITY (KT) — Kentucky is used to getting every team’s best shot. That won’t change as the Wildcats delve deeper into the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky (29-6) endured several punches during the regular season, especially in the Southeastern Conference. Coming off two straight NCAA Tournament victories over Abilene Christian and Wofford, respectively, the Wildcats are expecting a similar challenge against Houston in the Midwest Regional semifinals Friday night at the Sprint Center.
“We know what we are capable of,” freshman guard Ashton Hagans said. “We’ve just got to go out and play our game. We have a chip on our shoulders and we’ve just got to got out there and keep this thing going.”
The Cougars (33-3) haven’t advanced this deep in the tournament since 1984, but the long hiatus isn’t a factor with Houston’s current roster. The Cougars posted wins over Georgia State and Ohio State in the first two rounds and are yearning for more.
“Out of 352 schools, everybody can be beaten and (Kentucky is) just another team,” Houston forward Breaon Brady said. “We’re not playing Kentucky, we’re playing (Ashton) Hagans, (Reid) Travis and (PJ) Washington. At the end of the day, if we stick to our principles, it’s going to be a good game and the world is going to see what’s going to happen.”
Hagans said the Wildcats aren’t backing from the Cougars.
“I always like a challenge,” Hagans said. “We’ve just got to go out there and fight and play our game.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari hasn’t been surprised by Houston’s resurgence under Kelvin Sampson. The Cougars won their first 16 games and defeated SEC regular-season champion LSU as well as Cincinnati and Oklahoma State.
I’m just … I’m amazed,” Calipari said. “(It was) 10, 12, 13 years ago, we were going to Houston to play, to see it where it is now, now it’s incredible what they’ve done. They’re players. They’re not afraid. They have a swagger about them. They play with unbelievable energy. They defend like crazy and they rebound every basketball they attempt to rebound. So, it’s going to be a hard game for us to win with PJ (Washington) or without PJ.”
The Cougars also split a pair of games against the University of Central Florida, which took overall top seed Duke down to the wire last weekend, before the Blue Devils escaped with a 77-76 victory.
“Central Florida was one of the best teams we played this year and we played LSU, Oregon. Central Florida is really good,” Sampson said. “From a perception standpoint, unfortunately, people didn’t realize how good they were, not when they played us but when they played Duke. Then people gave them credit for that. That’s just the way people perceive things. I have a lot of respect for the schools that make this tournament but also have a lot of respect for the schools that came a little short.”
The Cougars have already earned Kentucky’s attention and Herro considers Houston “a great team.”
“It’s going to take fight,” he said. “They are going to come at us hard. We have to come at them. It’s going to be a competitive game for 40 minutes.”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Houston, 10 p.m., Friday. TV/Radio: TBS, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.