I suppose I feel as good as I can after a loss to UK's most hated rival. The reason for those "good" feelings can be traced back to last year, a year in which UK lost by 14 to Louisville in Rupp Arena. It was a game where UK was helpless in the second half against U of L's smothering 2-3 defense. It was a game where U of L shot 46 free throws to UK's 27, a sure sign of UK being "out-athleted." It was a game that left many feeling that Billy Gillispie had a long road to travel in order to bring the Big Blue back to being relevant on a national basis.
Yesterday's game gave me, and many other fans, reason to believe that UK is within arms reach of once again being a national player. Yesterday's game also saw UK narrow the free throw shooting discrepency mentioned above to a 23-22 U of L advantage, a positive sign that UK is catching up with their opponents in the athleticism department.
Yesterday Louisville, desperate for victory, and chronically underachieving this season, played without a doubt their strongest and most complete game of the year. Yet, upstart Kentucky, unbelievably had victory in sight, until the perpetually dog-housed Edgar Sosa buried, with the cold calculation of a serial killer, a 25-foot dagger deep into the hearts of Kentucky fans around the Commonwealth (as much as I would like to give Sosa an atomic-wedgie, his quote after the game about how the win felt is classic: "Like pouring a pound of sugar on top of ice cream").
The talk among UK fans is of resiliency; the talk is of a never-say-die attitude; the talk is of toughness. All of those things are admirable, and they must all be present for a team to be truly good. But even more importantly, talent and coaching must also be readily apparent on the floor-of-play. To me it seemed obvious that the talent level of those wearing blue yesterday is most decidedly improved over the last three years. Many of the players are the same, but the enhanced play, and confidence shown in the face of relentless pressure (other than the first few minutes), renders the "old Kentucky" of the last few years, dead and buried.
And it all starts with Patrick Patterson. I swear I would wash Rick Pitino's fleet of vehicles for six months if Patterson would come back next year; the superlatives to describe his play cannot be overstated. But, I'm at a loss to come up with anything new to describe how good Patterson has become; he's a beast, he's in possession of a heart larger than Secretariat's, and his talent is to be envied. He leads not with his mouth, but with his effort and determination.
Jodie Meeks is next in line. While Meeks often doesn't know a good shot from a bad one, and his ball-handling would at times fold under questioning (i.e. it can be weak), there is no denying that he can flat-out take over a game with his offensive prowess. And the good news is that Meeks' weaknesses CAN be coached out of him; his deficiencies aren't in his talent level, but rather in his decision-making. Gillispie is aware of this fact and I'm sure he will offer some sage words of wisdom in an effort to further enable Meeks to become the most efficient offensive player that he can be.
Defensively, Meeks is tenacious, at times. Which is the problem. He should be tenacious D 24/7. It's up to Gillispie to persuade the young man to play defense the way he plays offense; perpetually.
Perry Stevenson has the talent, if only he would believe as I do. Stevenson, in the U of L game offered up a typical Perry stat line: 31 minutes, 3-5 from the field, 1-1 from the three-point line (well, that's not typical), seven points, six rebounds, two assists, and three blocks. Solid play, but with an ounce more offensive confidence Stevenson would become UK's much needed third reliable scorer. I'm at a loss as to how to make Stevenson believe that he can become an offensive force, but Gillispie needs to find a way to extract that potential and make it reality.
Possibly the most hotly debated and discussed player in UK's recent history is Michael Porter. The undeniable truth is that Porter has improved his play tremendously over the last year or so. He's not, and never will be a great college basketball player. But his talent is at a high enough level, that when coupled with his desire and floor-burn mentality, renders him very difficult for Gillispie to keep out of the lineup. His ball-handling has become much steadier, although he still puts passes in very difficult positions for his teammates to catch and shoot. But, even in that area of his game he has matured beyond the point that most people thought him capable of reaching.
Porter has come a long way, but one aspect of his game that needs to continue to progress is his confidence level, as it pertains to his shot. He passed up more than a few open threes yesterday, even though he has shot the ball very well over the last few games. Defensively Porter is adequate, even though he's a bit ham-strung by his lack of lateral quickness. He's very active, and can be a disruptive defensive force when he's playing his best. None of those things were true only a year ago.
Based on their collective performance versus U of L yesterday, the UK freshmen didn't impress. But, the atmosphere of yesterday's game was not conducive to freshmen excelling, unless ones name is Rex Chapman. Even U of L's heralded big-man Samardo Samuels, playing at home, could only produce four points, four fouls, and one rebound in 11 minutes of play. So I preach patience when discussing Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins. They have the talent, but talent is useless if the player doesn't know how to use it, or lacks the confidence to try. Once again, Gillispie's opus is to develop his recruits, something that I have faith he will do.
I know, UK fans in particular don't want to hear happy-talk about what to feel good about after a loss to Louisville. But, hey, I'm trying to change the culture (not really), and I feel good about this team. What we have to accept is that Billy Gillispie's strategy in yesterday's game was to collapse in the middle, taking away Earl Clark and Samuels inside, along with Terrence Williams' slashes to the basket. He wanted to force Louisville to beat Kentucky from the outside; a sound philosophy considering U of L's previously poor three-point shooting against less than stellar competition -- Williams, who was 3-5 yesterday, came in sporting 32.7% accuracy; Sosa, who was 2-4 yesterday, was previously shooting 20.0% from beyond the arc; and Earl Clark who was 0-4 in the game, came in averaging 31.6% -- That's a cumulative 26.7% from the three-point line for those three players. Gillispie's gamble worked on Clark, but Sosa and Williams made him pay the ultimate price.
So let's not be too down; a solid strategy was defeated. Don't allow that to reflect poorly on UK's future. This team still has work to do (I sound like Billy), and if the current rate of improvement continues along the same arc, I like UK's chances of having a very successful season. The players currently apart of the program are capable, the next step is for Gillispie to hone their capabilities into a championship caliber club. That may not happen this year, but it's not far away.
Congratulations to the Cardinals, it was a victory hard earned.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!