By LARRY VAUGHT
No one in the Southeastern Conference has been playing better the last few weeks than Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington.
But does he have a realistic chance to be the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year or does Tennessee junior Grant Williams already have that honor wrapped up no matter what happens the next four weeks?
Williams has been sensational all season. Tennessee is unbeaten in SEC play, has just one loss and is ranked No. 1. He’s averaging 19.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals per game and shooting 58.1 percent from the field and 83.2 percent at the foul line — where he averages eight attempts per game.
Washington averages 14.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. He’s hitting 51.5 percent from the field — and 43.1 percent from 3-point range — and 69.6 percent at the foul line. In the last six games, he’s averaged 20.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. He’s scored 20 or more points in six of the last seven games and had double-doubles in three of them – and just missed with 20 points, nine rebounds Tuesday against LSU.
Williams and Washington will face off Saturday when UK hosts Tennessee and again March 2 in Knoxville.
My feeling has been that Williams has been so good all year that the SEC Player of the Year honor is his barring total collapse, especially after UK lost to LSU Tuesday night. However, some other media members I reached out to before the UK-LSU game disagree — sort of.
“If UK sweeps Rocky Top and PJ has huge games and Williams does not and UK wins the SEC, PJ could win it,” said former WLEX-TV sports anchor Alan Cutler.
Veteran ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, who criticized Washington in non-conference play for not being more dominant, thinks the UK sophomore could still win the award, too.
“If the Cats win both games (against Tennessee) and PJ wins the battle and stars in the victories, absolutely (he could be Player of the Year),” Vitale said.
ESPN’s Tom Hart believes Washington has a “shot” if UK beats Tennessee twice.
“But I don’t think it’s likely,” Hart said. “Grant has been great all season. Almost every game. He didn’t play well at Missouri (4 points on 1-for-8 shooting, 1 rebound in 22 minutes in 87-63 win). Without researching, it might be the only game this year that he didn’t have a positive impact. Analytically he is having one of the best seasons in recent SEC history.”
Aaron Torres of FoxSportsRadio and Kentucky Sports Radio thinks it would be “tough” for Washington to win “simply because he wasn’t great” early in SEC play.
“The only way I could see it is if Washington keeps up his torrid pace — he’s been awesome — and Kentucky beats Tennessee twice, and Washington is better than Grant Williams in both games,” Torres said. “Do that, and Washington will win it. But if they play each other to a draw, I would suspect it’d go to Williams.”
Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy thinks the Player of the Year winner could also come down to how voters interpret what it means.
“Whether it’s possible for PJ to overtake Grant Williams begins and ends with the question of whether one votes for the award as a season long performance or strictly something that’s earned through conference play,” DeCourcy said. “I’ve always tended to favor conference play for those awards because the full season is covered by All-America and the like.”
As always, solid and valid point here by DeCourcy.
“If one restricts it to league play, then it’s possible for PJ to overtake Grant, but obviously he would have to continue his recent excellence through the season’s biggest games,” DeCourcy said. “Grant has been one of the three best players in the nation to this point.
“PJ has played over the past month or so at an elite level. There’s no way he’s closing that big a gap in terms of full-season performance, but there’s still time for him to become the player who did the best in SEC games.”
Yes there is but knowing Washington as I do, he’ll gladly take having team success over any personal award because of how that would help position his team for the NCAA Tournament. What really matters is which team does the best in the NCAA because both players are having special seasons and I still think Washington will be on the team that has the best chance to win the national title provided UK uses Tuesday’s loss as a learning lesson like it did losses earlier in the season.