A wealth of possibilities: The forwards for the '08-'09 Wildcats are talented and deep enough to have a very special year for coach Billy Gillispie. UK returns all of the contributors from last years team, and adds JUCO transfer Josh Harrellson. Last year, sophomore Patrick Patterson was double-teamed more than Terrel Owens, this year those same double-teams will be made to pay more dearly.
While I know that college basketball success is largely predicated on solid guard play, this years Kentucky squad will be carried to greatness (if greatness is forthcoming) on the shoulders of their big men ...
... and the biggest man of them all is ...
Patrick Patterson: 6'8", 235 lb sophomore forward -- Last year Mr. Everything averaged 16.4 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game, he shot 57% from the field and 73% from the foul line.
I'm not sure it's possible for a freshman to accomplish more, within the framework of the team, as Patrick Patterson did last year: He was asked to score, so he did. He was asked to lead, and he led. He was asked to play through pain, and he did. He was asked to play 35.7 minutes per game, and he did without complaint. He was asked to be the only boy in blue battling in the paint, and he battled until he broke.
If not for missing six games, Patterson would have surely shattered 'King' Rex Chapman's freshman scoring mark of 464 points (Patterson had 411). Even though he missed the final three regular season SEC games, he was still honored as Co-Freshman of the Year in the SEC, sharing the honor with the deserving Nick Calathes of Florida (and by 'deserving' I mean he deserved to SHARE the award).
This year Patterson is going to be much better. Not only because he's a year older and more experienced, but also because Patterson now has some help. That thought has to scare the hair off the SEC's more insecure coaches.
Ramon Harris thinks Patterson is primed for the big time:
"When you think of what he did last year, he was the center of attention and all of the defenses tried to stop him. He never went one-on-one with anybody. He always had to take what they gave him so I think Pat having had that, there is a chance we may not have seen what he can really do."
Offensively Patterson developed a very nice 12-15 foot jumper last year, which served as a nice complement to his back-to-the-basket repertoire. This year Patterson needs to push his reliable outside shooting parameters to the 18 foot range. That would not only help Patterson's NBA prospects, but would make him a nearly unstoppable force while he still plays for no pay.
Defensively Patterson was alternately very good to average. His footwork was generally excellent, but at times he tended to reach, which led him to fouling out of four games and being tagged with four fouls in five more games. That's nine out of 25 games played with at least four fouls (but of course he averaged almost 36 minutes per game). That stat needs to improve, and with the help he'll be receiving this year in the paint I anticipate him lowering his foul total.
Patterson averaged .8 steals per game last year, which is a solid total, but I'm sure Gillispie would appreciate a slightly higher per game average this year. He also blocked 31 shots, another number I anticipate going up this year.
Billy Gillispie seems to share my enthusiasm for what Patterson can accomplish in the '08-'09 season:
"Last year he was a rookie coming in and he knew he was a good player but his confidence level this year compared to last year is like ten-fold. He knows he can be a good Southeastern Conference player. He's got a great deal of confidence and he's a very, very determined worker right now. We expect great things from Patrick."
A confident, healthy Patterson holds the fortunes of this team in his considerably large hands.
Perry Stevenson: 6'9", 215 lb junior forward -- The painfully thin (he makes Tayshaun Prince want to visit Jenny Craig), quick jumping Cajun averaged 5.9 points per game last year, to go along with 5.1 rebounds. He shot 57.5% from the field and an impressive 77.6% from the foul line. He also recorded a team high 46 blocks.
Stevenson's year can be broken down into two distinct categories: With Patrick and without Patrick.
When Patterson broke his foot (stress fracture) against Ole Miss on February 27, Stevenson was left to go solo the rest of the season. He responded with authority, averaging 9.4 points per game, 9.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 61.5% from the field. He also increased his blocked shot total to 2.2 per game from the 1.3 he averaged up to that point in the season.
On the road versus Tennessee, in Patterson's first missed game, Stevenson had his best effort to-date in UK's most satisfying loss in recent memory (63-60). Stevenson played 37 minutes, he was 4-8 from the floor, which was good for 13 points, and he recorded 14 rebounds and two blocks. He thoroughly outplayed UT's Wayne Chism, holding him to only nine points and eight rebounds.
He came through for the blue, and he came through in a big way.
Stevenson had this to say about his play in Patterson's absence:
"With Pat not there to get all the rebounds it just kind of fell into my hands and made me look good, and I was fine with that" he slyly notes. "I always knew I could do it. But, of course, I'm entitled to believe in myself. So it was a surprise. I got a few bounces."
Vinny (my cousin) would object, and question the veracity of that statement.
Billy Gillispie sees a different player this year:
"He's been fantastic. I guess that's what confidence does for you. He's always had talent and ability and he played very well last year but I think he's going to have a breakout season for us. He's a totally different person."
Stevenson has shown flashes of great play in his two year career, but he finally 'found' himself, and found out how good he can be, after Patterson went down. Although he still gets pushed around on the blocks occasionally, he has learned how to 'leverage' his weight, and began to hold his ground much better toward the end of the year. Stevenson is an exceptional shot blocker, especially coming off his man to block an opponents shot. He's come a very long way from his freshman year offensively, and even more so, defensively. His continuing on a similar growth arc means UK has yet another powerful performer waiting to unleash his confidence.
In summary, Stevenson's continued development should enhance UK's ability to score and defend around the basket at a higher level than last year.
Ramon Harris: 6'6", 218 lb junior forward -- The defensive specialist from Alaska averaged 4.2 points, and 3.5 rebounds per game. Harris shot 51% from the field (36% from the three-point line) on only 73 shots taken, and 60% from the free throw line.
Last year Harris became Billy Gillispie's favorite perimeter defender, often guarding the opponents most lethal offensive weapon. That's a role he has enjoyed since high school, but with UK looking for points from all of the players on the floor, this year Harris needs to develop his offensive confidence. Something he is aware of:
"Watching tapes of the season I noticed I passed up a lot of open shots, (Gillispie) has taken me out of games for passing up those shots. You feel like you're not open but you really are or you think you're open and you're not, so you have to figure out what's a good shot and what's a bad shot." Harris continued on, "I was never a shoot-first player. My high school coach also used to get mad at me for passing instead of taking the shot myself. That's just something I've always done, but I realize to help the team I am going to have to take some of those open shots or take the ball to the basket. That's what I have to do."
Billy Gillispie thinks Harris is progressing nicely:
"Ramon had a very, very good year and this year I think he will build upon that. He's a quiet leader, and a hard-hat guy that brings it every day and goes to work. He leads by example and he's growing into a third year player."
Harris also needs to continue working on his ball handling, which was abysmal the first part of last season. Last year Harris averaged 22.5 minutes per game, yet still averaged 1.9 turnovers per game. Six times in 27 games played Harris turned the ball over at least four times.
I look for Harris to start most games this year, and his defensive presence will ensure he plays a lot of minutes. If he can continue his evolution as a scorer, and a three-point shooter, he will make himself one of the most valuable members of the team.
A.J. Stewart: 6'7", 225 lb sophomore forward -- Stewart averaged 2.1 points and 1.8 rebounds per game last year. He shot 57% from the field and 46% from the foul line.
Nobody suffered through the UK regime change more than A.J. Stewart. By his own admission he thought about transferring, a lot:
"I can count on one hand where I didn't think about giving up. It was every day, every practice. Boot camp, definitely. Coach is yelling at you, wanting you to go harder and harder and you think you're going as hard as you can go but really you're not. In your head you're thinking, 'Man, why am I here? What am I doing? Why did I get on that plane?' But now it's different. I know what to expect."
He certainly didn't know what to expect, even after the season began. No one, not even Michael Porter, experienced the fluctuations in their minutes played than Stewart: Twenty-nine and 23 minutes versus Liberty and Texas Southern, then a DNP versus Stony Brook. Eighteen and 12 minutes versus North Carolina and Indiana, then a DNP versus UAB. Fifteen and 20 minutes versus Houston and Tennessee Tech, then only five versus San Diego, followed by a DNP versus Florida International. His minutes dropped considerably after the December 22 game versus Tennessee Tech; there was no more roller coaster, only a grounded 'Cat.
I think it's all about confidence, and maturity, as well as his ability to stay out of trouble with the head coach. Stewart is a known 'goof-off' who likes to have fun, but having fun has its place. Maybe he's learned that:
"I think it's all a part of growing up. I think I've matured a lot over the summer. I like to have fun. If I'm not having fun I'm just going to do worse and worse. But there's a time for play and a time for work. I understand that now."
Billy Gillispie agrees:
"A.J. is a guy that has to continue to grow up. He's a good athlete and we're hopeful he's going to be able to give us something. I thought he played well toward the end of the year but he's got to continue to get better skill-wise and those kinds of things, but there are not too many athletes like him."
Stewart reminds me of Perry Stevenson in his freshman year. He didn't play much, but when he did one saw the potential to be an impact player. Stewart can jump out of the gym, and has long arms, so he plays bigger than his 6'7" height. He moves with ease within the paint area, and has a nice 12-15 foot jumper. His problem is with his focus and getting lost on defense, which are typical freshman ailments.
I look for Stewart to grow up, or risk losing playing time once again. Kentucky has more able bodies at the forward position this year, so his margin for error will be as thin as Stevenson's physique. A player possessing Stewart's athleticism can be a great benefit to his team, if he only stays focused, and off Gillispie's 'pay-no-mind' list.
The New Guy
Josh Harrellson: 6'9", 255 lb sophomore forward -- At Southwestern Illinois Community College Harrellson averaged 14.8 points and 8 rebounds per game. He was also named First Team All-Great Lakes Athletic Conference.
Enter the 'muscle.'
Harrellson will provide immediate front court help to Patrick Patterson and Perry Stevenson, help in the form of scoring and rebounding. The big man has shown a propensity for knocking down the mid-range jumper and is capable of burying his man deep under the basket. He uses his strength to gain advantageous rebounding position, and is a finisher at the rim.
In short, he can do it all; play with his back to the basket, or face up and bury a jumper from 16-18 feet out.
Defensively he will have to become accustomed to the speed of major college play, but all indications point to him adjusting well. Billy Gillispie is certainly pleased:
"Josh has probably been better than anyone could have ever imagined. I really liked him when we recruited him because he has great hands and great skills, and the ability to post up with his back to the basket and the ability to face up and shoot. I really believe that the teams that are the best have versatility at the '4' spot and we'll have great versatility there. He'll be a very important part of the puzzle."
Paging Padgett ... Scott Padgett. Surely we can't be that lucky, can we?
Harrellson's ability to take some of the pressure off of Patterson will be the key to UK's long-term success this year. With UK having another forward who poses a legitimate scoring and rebounding threat not only underneath, but also outside, Patterson should see fewer double-teams, thus enabling him to go one-on-one with some poor, helpless defender. At minimum, uninhibited hope.
Final Thoughts and a Daring Prediction
With the aforementioned emergence of Perry Stevenson in Patterson's absence last year, Billy Gillispie now has another bona fide scoring threat down low. Stevenson is now a player that defenses can't sag off of as frequently, thus making more room, and securing more freedom for Patterson to enjoy. Josh Harrellson's presence in the paint will also have the same positive effect on Patterson's game. Harrellson's skill set should have an immediate positive impact on UK's offensive and defensive performance overall, and just as importantly, his presence will allow Patterson to be all that he can be (ya know P-Pat does more before 6 am than most people do all day).
Patrick must be as foamy as a rabid dog about now.
The high-low, and high post offensive set possibilities are now in endless supply with UK's five fearless paint warriors.
Last year the foursome of Patterson, Stevenson, Stewart, and Harris combined to average 28.6 points and 18.1 rebounds per game. With the addition of Harrellson, and the improvement of the returning players, those numbers should head north in a hurry. I'll go with a combined 44 points and 30 rebounds.
If that prognostication comes to fruition, fans will be plenty pleased with UK's win total, and the depth of Kentucky's NCAA run.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!