These Cats have potential...but need to put it together
As I was taking out the trash last night, I noticed a streetlight near my house that apparently had a loose bulb. The light was flickering on and off with the wind, providing brief shining moments interspersed with seconds of darkness as the wind rushed through. When the light was on, the path to the street was well-lit and clear...easy to avoid pitfalls like a cracked sidewalk or a present left in the yard by my puppy. When the light was off, it was a guessing game as to how far off path I could get, and what relative dangers I might fall into.
It's a lot like UK's season so far.
During a rare back-to-back this weekend, Cats fans were treated to the best and worst this UK team has to offer...all in a 48-hour span. There was the matador defense in the first half against Miami, leading to a 20-point halftime deficit. There was the ice-cold shooting that saw the Cats shoot just 35% and hit only 2-23 from 3-point range. Jodie Meeks, who I praised in last week's column, appeared to be playing blindfolded, as he shot 2-12 from 3 point land and only 4-17 overall.
The next day, the darkness again was prevalent against winless Mississippi Valley State, as the scoreboard saw the Cats tied with the Delta Devils at 28 apiece with three minutes left in the first half. Only a quick 9-2 spurt to close the half avoided the Cats the embarrassment of a second straight game of heading to the locker room on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
But while the Cats only managed a split this weekend, falling short in their comeback bid against Miami and then blowing out MVS in the second half, glimpses of what this team could be were evident, if only for brief stretches. The light wasn't on all weekend, but when it was, it was bright.
There was DeAndre Liggins, growing up before our eyes, pouring in 18 points and 5 assists against a veteran Hurricanes squad, and then adding 10 more points and 5 assists the next afternoon. There was Darius Miller, grabbing 10 rebounds and adding 5 assists against Miami.
There was Patrick Patterson reintroducing himself in a big way to the Rupp faithful, throwing up 19 points and 16 boards against Miami, and then following that up with 21 and 10 against MVS. There was Meeks rebounding nicely from his poor shooting effort against Miami by going 8-12 on Sunday and piling up 24 points.
Heck, even little-used Landon Slone got in on the action, scoring eight points on Sunday afternoon and earning a nice ovation from the crowd for his effort and hustle.
But beyond the box scores, this weekend gave Cats fans a idea of what this team is capable of if they play consistently with passion and effort. The key for Coach Billy Gillispie is to find a way to keep that light in the "ON" position.
One guy who Gillispie won't have to worry about is Patterson, who showed why he was a popular pick for SEC Player of the Year in the preseason. Incredibly athletic and skilled, Patterson is a load on the blocks for anyone, and if he gets enough touches, he is a nightly double-double threat. He has great footwork, can finish with either hand, is relentless on the glass, and he a reliable touch on the mid-range jumper. Likely bound for the NBA after this year, Cats fans should enjoy him now.
Another guy whose motor is always running is Meeks, who can fill it up with anyone when he's on. His shot selection could use a little work, but you also don't want to take away his aggressiveness, which could be his biggest weapon. He's a fantastic athlete who can shoot from outside or drive to the basket and finish with contact. Between Meeks and Patterson, the Cats have as good a 1-2 punch as anyone in the league.
But the real difference for UK this year lies with the rest of the rotation, Michael Porter, Ramon Harris, Liggins, Miller, Josh Harrellson and Perry Stevenson. If the light stays on for those guys, this could be a dangerous team by the time conference play rolls around.
Porter and Harris are solid, veteran players who know the system and won't be rattled by tough road environments. Porter showed a ton of toughness taking the floor this weekend after the nasty collision with Harris, and while he isn't a great athlete, he plays tough defense and gives maximum effort. Harris is a great glue guy who can do a little of everything, and his return could help the young Cats.
Elsewhere, Stevenson is a terrific compliment to Patterson down low, providing shot-blocking and rebounding, as well as the occasional basket when Patterson is doubled. Harrellson won't make the highlight reels, but he's a solid big man who gives great effort when he's out there. Both will be increasingly important this year as Patterson receives more attention.
Liggins and Miller could be great players in this league, and they've both had shown flashes of potential when given the minutes. When under control, Liggins is a great fit for this team, able to run the break and also defend from end to end. He still can force the action at times, but he'll get better as he gains more experience.
Miller has the makings of a future star...if only he believes it. Blessed with a ton of ability, Miller doesn't appear to have the aggressivness or killer attitude needed to be a star yet, but then again, we're only nine game into his career. If the light goes on for him, the rest of the league could be in trouble.
So the key for Gillispie is to keep this team's light on, to keep them focused and consistent, to keep them on the right path. They'll be moments when that light flickers this year, but the potential is there for this team to make those dark moments few and far between. They've got solid inside play, good outside shooters, young talent mixed with veteran leadership, and a coach who won't hesitate to tell them when they're wrong.
Outside of Tennessee, no SEC team has really established themselves this year, meaning UK could find themselves right in the mix. If they play with the switch in the "ON" position all year, there's no reason to think they can't compete for the SEC title.
So here's hoping the lights shine bright, and continuously, at Rupp Arena this season.