Kentucky Basketball: A Wild Ride Getting Wilder

    
December 2nd, 2008
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Wild ride: Cats fans should expect bumpy season

56:       That's the number of points junior guard Jodie Meeks scored in two games in the Las Vegas Invitational, earning MVP honors as the Cats won two straight.

54:       That's the number of turnovers UK had in two games in Vegas, giving them a six-game total of 138. By contrast, they have been credited with just 93 assists.

1:         That's the number of times freshman PG DeAndre Liggins refused to go into the game in the second half Friday night against Kansas State.

27:       That's the number of minutes Liggins played the next night against West Virginia, apparently rewarded for his insubordination.

68.8:    That's the blazing-hot percentage UK shot from the field against Kansas State

38.5:    That's the percentage the next night... is it chilly in here?

30.5:    That's the field-goal percentage UK held West Virginia to in that same game...yes it is chilly in here.

 

Welcome to the 2008-09 Kentucky season, where one never knows what to expect when the Cats take the floor. So far, with a roster that includes 20 players, only eight players are averaging more than five minutes per game. Junior college point guard Kevin Galloway, who received rave reviews over the summer, has played a grand total of eight minutes this season, compiling one assist and two turnovers. Michael Porter, who many fans thought would find plenty of bench time behind Liggins and Galloway, has averaged nearly 21 minutes per game so far.

The young season has already seen the Cats have a deficit of 27 points (Nov. 14 against VMI), as well as a lead of 31 (Nov. 22 against Delaware State).  This is a team that put together runs of 16-0 and 9-0 against Kansas State, only to have to hold off the scrappy Wildcats for a two-point victory.

We've already seen All-American forward Patrick Patterson head to the bench against West Virginia in early foul trouble, only to have unheralded Josh Harrellson come through with a 12-point, 10-rebound effort.

Fans have witnessed the rebirth of Meeks, who couldn't seem to stay healthy last year, and now has turned into a scoring machine, putting up 39 against VMI and 37 against Kansas State...a game in which he outscored Kansas State in the first half 24-23.

Needless to say, this season has already been a rollercoaster. With so many new faces on the roster (and so many faces in general), the Cats have been wildly inconsistent to start the season. Few gave the Cats a chance to win at North Carolina, but even fewer thought the Cats would drop a home game to Virginia Military Institute before that. That loss, combined with last year's early season loss to Gardner-Webb, meant Coach Billy Gillispie was going to hear a lot of criticism.

"I'm not saying we need to fire him right now," affirmed a close friend of mine the day after the VMI loss. "But if someone put a petition in front of me right now to get rid of him, I'd think about it - that's for sure."

However, the Cats have rebounded nicely to win four straight, including quality wins over Kansas State and West Virginia in Las Vegas...wins that personified the Cats' season so far. A few moments each game where you think to yourself -  "hey - maybe this team has a chance to really do something", typically followed by a few moments where you wonder if the team has ever practiced together or is even vaguely familiar with the game of basketball.

The turnover numbers have been staggering and quite frankly, embarrassing. I know it is the season of giving, but UK has been more than generous with the basketball so far. I've seen high school freshmen teams run more organized offensive sets than UK right now, and take better care of the basketball. Perhaps instead of new uniforms, the Cats should have invested in some Stick-em for their hands...

The offense has been...hmm...well it's hard to say. Meeks has been unstoppable at times, but you have to wonder if carrying such a huge load all season will wear on him by February and March. Patterson is almost automatic when he touches the ball in the post, but too often, the Cats seem to forget about him. Beyond that, it's anyone's best guess. Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson don't exactly scare opponents, while Liggins and fellow freshman Darius Miller have shown only flashes of their potential.

The defense has steadily improved, after allowing VMI and UNC to shoot 45% percent from the field and 49% from 3-point range to start the season. Since that point, the Cats have tightened up, allowing opponents to shoot only 32% from the field and 22% from distance.  The effort appears to be there on the defensive end, but you have to wonder if more veteran teams will be able to attack the Cats' youth and inexperience.

So while I'd like to be able to give you a great in-depth analysis of the early UK season, and offer some insight into what it means for the rest of the season, I can't. Frankly, I have no idea, and I don't think anyone else does either. If the turnover problem persists, and the offense continues to have as much flow as a Los Angeles rush-hour freeway, the Cats could be looking at another Selection Sunday on the bubble. Liggins' attitude could persist if his minutes vary from game to game. Meeks may wear down late in the season. Gillispie may suffer permanent voice loss from his famous locker room "pep talks". Porter may start turning the ball over in the lay-up lines before the game. Patterson may wonder if he can declare for the NBA Draft in January.

Or....the Cats could continue to build on their positives. They've managed to win even while turning the ball over at an alarming rate. They've shot the ball fairly well when they've managed to get into their offense, even if the system is a bit unorganized. The only person who can keep Meeks from hitting for 20+ on any given night is Meeks...he's that good. Patterson is a rock down low, and you have to think he'll continue to get more touches as the season goes. Liggins and Miller could pose a ton of match-up problems with their size and athleticism for opposing guards. And the Cats defense has already shown improvement, and if its anything like last year, they'll only get better as the season goes.

So where does that leave us? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is this season certainly won't be boring.