From the initial tip to open the college basketball season to pregame warmups on Saturday evening, Tennessee junior forward Grant Williams has been deemed the runaway favorite to take home SEC Player of the Year honors this year.
Averaging 19.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game, Williams has been the complete package. He's shooting career-highs in field goal percentage (58.1 percent shooting on 10.8 shots per game) and free throw percentage (83.5 percent), also knocking down threes at a 34.4 percent clip (11-32 on the year).
Williams is polished in the paint, fights for loose balls, makes the right decisions more often than not, and is leader of the No. 1 team in the SEC. It's hard to find many true flaws in his game.
But with the entire college basketball world watching on Saturday, Williams proved he wasn't
the best player in the SEC. That honor goes to Kentucky forward PJ Washington.
Finishing with 23 points (9-12 shooting, 1-2 from three), five rebounds, one assist, two blocks, and two steals, the Kentucky sophomore forward was easily the best player on the court on both ends. He got the team off to a hot start by scoring the first three baskets and seven points for the Wildcats, and kept that consistent energy throughout the game.
"He's doing some good stuff," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the game. "I mean, you are looking at him now making shots and skilled with the ball and stuff that a year ago he couldn't do. Making free throws, playing, sustaining effort, not floating and coming in and out."
When adversity hit, Washington was the first to respond on the big stage.
With Kentucky up by 24 points and Tennessee's back up against the wall awaiting the knockout blow, the Volunteers fought through for a 13-0 run to cut the lead back down to just 11.
Who came to save the day? You guessed it, the 6-foot-7 power forward out of Dallas, who immediately forced his way inside for a tough lay-in, followed by a steal on the other end leading to two converted free throws for the sophomore forward. Those four points turned into seven of the team's next nine points, pushing the Kentucky lead back up to 15.
They weathered the storm and the ship was righted as the Wildcats coasted to an 86-69 victory over the No. 1 team in the nation. And from start to finish, the captain of that ship was Washington.
When matched up with Williams in particular, it was like a switch was flipped for Washington, as the Wildcat big man went right at his throat time and time again. He'd establish himself in the post, create all the space he wanted, and sink jump hook after jump hook right over the outstretched hand of the talented Volunteer forward. On defense (combined with the efforts of Kentucky graduate transfer Reid Travis), they made nothing easy for the Tennessee forward who thrives against just about anybody thrown his direction.
It wasn't even about the numbers, necessarily. Finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and two steals, Williams didn't have a bad game by any means. It had more to do with what happened beyond the pure Xs and Os out on the floor.
Above all else, Washington proved to be the tougher player willing to do whatever it took to grind out the victory. When things started slipping away for Tennessee, Williams resorted to flopping on the floor and yelping at the referees instead of bucking up and taking the game over like a junior star should. Washington smelled the blood in the water and went right for the Tennessee forward's jugular.
And a big reason for that increased intensity had to do with Kentucky’s matchup with Tennessee in January of last year.
The Volunteers won at home by a score of 76-65, but the talented UT forward said Washington was “in (his) head a little bit” in their time matched up on the floor. After jumping out of the gates with force, cramps hit for the star Wildcat, forcing him to miss the rest of the game and allowing the Volunteers to hold on.
“He shut me down in the first half,” Williams said at the time. “I’ll give it to him. He was in my head a little bit. I think the cramps hurt their team a lot. Just the fact they were playing with so much confidence when he was in the game.”
From there, Washington knew, especially on Saturday, he could find both a physical and mental advantage over Williams.
That advantage led to a flat-out domination of the supposed top contender for the SEC Player of the Year award.
“When he said that I felt like I had an advantage tonight,”
Washington said on Saturday. “Just try to keep going at him and keep going at their team. And just try to get a victory as we did tonight.”
Kentucky freshman guard Tyler Herro sensed the killer instinct kick in for Washington, as well. He could see the fear in Williams' eyes, and if his Wildcat teammate can keep this level of play up moving forward, that same fear will strike for every team they face from now until the end of the season.
“I think they’re scared of him, honestly,” Herro said. “Scared of PJ. I think a lot of people are now that he’s scoring how he is and doing what he’s doing.”
Knowing that Williams took home SEC Player of the Year honors last year and is the frontrunner to do the same this season, Washington said he knew he had to give it everything he had against one of the best in the conference. And you better believe he's happy with the result.
"I take every matchup personally," he said. "I know everybody is out to get us, so I just need to be out to get them and bring my 'A' game every night. I have to be confident in my abilities and be confident in my teammates.
Cramps actually crept back in for Washington against Tennessee on Saturday, and Calipari believes it's because he's not used to playing with that physical edge from the opening tip through the final buzzer. The Kentucky head coach was impressed with the effort, but wants it to be more consistent moving forward.
"Well, one of the things is we just went at him," he said. "We're just like, 'go.' And he also, we like him at the top of the key shooting some threes because he can make that shot. But the whole thing, again, no lapses, none, get to where you're a vicious competitor the entire time and then sub yourself. Today he subbed himself. And I hate to tell you he got cramps. What does that tell you? It's probably harder than he's gone all year. That's why you cramp up."
Calipari said that he is ecstatic to talk to people around the basketball world about Washington because of the dramatic growth he has seen from year one to year two. The Kentucky head coach believes there isn't a doubt in his mind his star forward is the most improved player in all of college basketball, and a big reason for that is because he just wants it more than everyone else.
"You know, what makes me happy is when I'm hearing people call me and say, 'Cal, he's the most improved guy in the country,'" he said. "Like 'he is it.' And a big part of that was conditioning and toughness and focus. And when you understand that it's not going to be easy and there's no easy road, that I've got to compete every day, you probably got it licked because you're competing against yourself. You're trying to conquer yourself. PJ finishes first in every run we do right now. Every run we do, Kenny Payne's screaming and yelling, 'don't let him finish first' and guys are trying to chase him down and he ain't letting them."
When asked about what it feels like to dominate the way he did on the big stage against the No. 1 team in the nation, Washington said it's a "blessing" to represent his "dream school" in the way they did.
“It means a lot," he said. "It shows everyone that we can still play with great teams in this league and in this country," he said. "To have an atmosphere like that was great. There was one point in the first half I couldn’t hear. I was trying to talk to Ash (Ashton Hagans) and I couldn’t even hear myself. This was my dream school growing up, so just to be here is a blessing for me. To go out there and beat a No. 1 team is just more than I could ask for. I’m just so proud of my teammates because of all the hard work we’ve been putting in. Everybody has been doubting us, but we feel like we deserve this."
With the dust settled from the victory over Tennessee, is PJ Washington the best player in the SEC?
If you ask him, absolutely.
"Being the competitor that I am, I would say yes, I am the best player in the SEC," Washington said." But I feel like our team is the best team in the SEC, and without my teammates, I'm nothing."