After carefully reconsidering what I saw last night, I have come to the conclusion that the Kentucky Wildcats may be much better this year than any of us suspected. After last night, this is more than intuition.
Billy Gillispie said this today this about the team:
"This is the closest we've come to playing like we've practiced," Gillispie said. "We had our best practice of the year (Tuesday), and we came close to playing like that."
Folks, make no mistake -- if the Wildcats are capable of this type of play, especially considering that two major contributors didn't play significant minutes, they are capable of beating almost anyone. I qualify that advisedly, since I have seen UNC and even Louisville play some basketball that was at least as good and possibly better in stretches this season. I don't mean to say that the Tarheels and the Cardinals are equal by any means, just that I have seen Louisville play some high-quality ball at moments this season. North Carolina has come the closest to doing it consistently.
I know it is easy to descend into blue-blinded hyperbole. After all, this is just one game. But I do get amped when Gillispie repeatedly says that his team practices better than it plays on the court. That is a relatively unusual thing to happen on a consistent basis for a team, but pretty common for an individual (remember Josh Carrier?). If Kentucky can continue this strong upward trend they are on for any significant length of time, the confidence that they will gain will make them much tougher automatically. I believe it is a lack of confidence in themselves and their teammates that has lead them to such a slow start the last two years.
The more I think about DeAndre Liggins' game last night, the more impressed I am. Liggins may not be a great leaper, but he really knows how to move his feet. He is a very fast player, probably second only to Jodie Meeks when it comes to getting up and down the floor, and he proved it by keeping up with Ty Lawson in the North Carolina game. I told you back during the Derby Festival Classic that Liggins was the best at getting the ball down the floor on the pass I had seen in years, and we really got some good looks at what that meant last night -- mainly dunks by a streaking Patterson. Not only that, Liggins has developed a jump shot -- back last year, his shot was somewhat broken and unreliable, but it seems that he has done some successful surgery on it. Liggins now looks capable of becoming a genuine threat from the perimeter, something UK badly needs from that position.
In my excitement about Liggins' sudden development, I have forgotten to mention the one guy who is really improving game to game -- Ramon Harris. To be honest, I never believed Ramon Harris would be this good, and he hasn't come close to reaching his potential. A lot of what Harris is bringing these days is mental toughness, and last night he was on his way to a monster game before he was injured. If that injury turns out to be minor, as we all pray it will as it thankfully is, Harris has only just begun to show us the full measure of his ability. I can hardly wait to see the rest.
Josh Harrellson is also getting better and more confident game by game. He is starting to become a consistent three-point threat, and no team wants to face a guy his size hanging out on the arc -- that means double -teaming Patterson is very hard to do, and opponents really need to be able to do that. Harrellson is in the process of taking that option away. Combine that with Liggins' improved shooting from the perimeter, and suddenly the 'Cats look very threatening indeed.
Usually after games like last night, teams take a step back in their next game. That will be the key to discovering if the 'Cats are likely to develop into a true threat this year, or will just peak out at "good, not great." Of course, "great" is something that I don't expect even in my current optimistic state, but the level of execution last night was consistent with that of a "great" team, a team capable of beating anyone, anywhere, anytime. So are we witnessing the birth of something special here, like we saw back in 2003 against Vanderbilt, or just another halcyon moment that will soon be washed away by mediocrity?
I don't know, but I do hope.