The very best victories are the ones you don't expect. That's true in life, for sure, but nowhere is it more axiomatic than in sports. An unanticipated win against a superior opponent just causes those little endorphin thingys to run wild, giving you a wonderfully sated sensation. For whatever reason, this win was much more satisfying than the Vanderbilt victory, possibly because we suspected at the outset that Vanderbilt was just a tad overrated. But Tennessee most assuredly was not, and even though beating Vandy was great in view of their recent success against us, beating a #3 ranked Volunteer team is particularly wonderful.
Reading around the Internet today, I noticed yet one more in a long line of "Perry Stevenson sux" posts on The Cats Pause. Even a great game by the guy only gets him limited props from many, "yeah, but that's just one game." No, it's four fine games in a row, this one was spectacular where the others were just good. Perry Stevenson is getting better and more productive because finally, after 1.5 years as a Cat, he is getting one of the things you cannot teach -- experience. There is simply no substitute for game experience, and as helpless as Stevenson has looked at times this year, he was very nearly a dominant player last night. 5 blocked shots may not be Varnado-esque, but it is impressive against such a highly ranked team.
Stevenson is finally learning to use his slender build to his advantage. Nobody seems to notice that he and Varnado are virtually the same size and same weight, yet Varnado has managed very well for himself among the thick bodies of the SEC power forwards, thank you very much. Thickness is an advantage in a power game, but games may also be won with athleticism and finesse, and it's that latter thing that Stevenson seems to be improving on. His ballhandling is still a bit shaky, but light-years ahead of where he was earlier in the season. Running the high-low with him and Patterson is becoming deadly, and it truly warms the cockles of my heart to see Stevenson figuring out how to succeed among the bruisers in the paint.
Another fascinating subplot I have seen debated hotly is the fact that this year's team looks and plays very much like last year's in a macro sense -- slow tempo, emphasis on defense, etc. One of the biggest criticisms of Tubby Smith from the Big Blue Nation was the fact that he played a deliberate style. Many fans wanted to see Rick Pitino's style, although a good number really probably used style as a substitute for results. What we see now is that Gillispie is closer to Smith in style of play, at least with these players. Unlike Smith, Gillispie seems to be a tireless recruiter who actually likes to recruit, and is signing players who should be able to play at a faster pace. The jury will have to remain out on that until some of our older recruits move along, but it is interesting that many who were critical of Smith's style are not so critical of a very similar style under Gillispie. But no matter where you fall out on that debate, one thing I think most fans can agree on -- results trump style every time.
There is a lot of good reading in the daily news, and I encourage you to take a look at some of them if you have the time. Ramel Bradley is starting to really take ownership of his responsibilities as lead guard, and even though I think he takes slights a little to personally, I would rather have that than the alternative. He played a really great game last night, and his leadership and determination are a big reason why we won the game, not to mention his free-throw shooting. I am continually amazed at the confidence the Cats have shown at the line, particularly when compared to some of the teams of the Smith and Pitino era. It is truly extraordinary and ... well I can't remember the last time Kentucky led the league in free throw shooting -- that has historically been a statistic dominated by the Commodores of Vanderbilt.
So where is this team going? It's hard to say, but we have seen four quality efforts in a row now, with last night's being much the best. If the Wildcats can continue to be a reflection of their coach and play hard-nosed defense and determined offense, I'm not sure what the ceiling for this team is. We are facing a stretch of four games we aught to win, two of them at home. If Kentucky can go 3-1 or 4-0 in the next couple of weeks, we could develop some momentum that may lead us to the post season in some form or fashion. Of course, the SEC tournament is always a doorway into the Big Dance, and if we can beat UT here, you have to figure that there is at least a chance we can run the table and get into the tournament. Even if not, the two wins we have had against top 25 competition plus a winning overall record might get us an invitation to the NIT, which I think most Wildcat fans would happily (or maybe grudgingly, I guess) take this year.
One thing is for sure -- this team is learning how to win, and there is no more important lesson to learn in college basketball than how to win. I am optimistic, but we do have to temper that optimism with the reality that three of our best players are still hurt, and are likely to carry that hurt with them the rest of the year. Playing the crazy minutes they are seeing right now risks aggravating those hurts into injuries. I saw a stat while ago that Patrick Patterson is averaging 42.5 minutes per game over the last 4 games. That isn't good, but it's the lot we have drawn. South Carolina is next.