Rick Bozich had a piece yesterday that I thought deserved some extra commentary. In it, Bozich recognizes what many do not, that the guys most responsible for Kentucky's victory yesterday were not the guys that appear in the CBS pre-game trailers.
One thing that the media does every year is focus on one or two players from every team to be the face of that team. For Kentucky, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones are those faces. Jones is leading Kentucky in scoring and rebounding as a freshman, and his accolades are certainly well deserved for his on-court results.
Knight gets a lot of the focus because he is extremely easy to love, and to write about. An outstanding student as well as an outstanding student-athlete, Brandon Knight is one of those players that helps all college basketball fans, not just Kentucky fans, get past some of the high-profile ineligibilities for bad grades, gyrations to obtain eligibility in the first place, and bad team grades.
Knight is a parent's dream in the macro sense -- a son who excels at every endeavor he attempts and is driven to succeed by a competitive spirit that will not be swallowed up by the girls, hype and pageantry of major college basketball. He is the poster-child for NCAA basketball that we all want to see, and I know we are all very happy to see him there.
Nobody but a dedicated UK fan could love DeAndre Liggins. He is the antithesis of Knight; a player who struggled to qualify for college, struggled to maintain his eligibility, fought with coaches, and has served one semester of his precious four years of eligibility on the bench for unspecified reasons.
Consider this paragraph from Bozich's piece above:
Liggins swallowed Siva with his length, quickness and dedication to the task. Siva plays his best when he can wiggle into the lane, draw double teams and toss the ball to Preston Knowles or Kyle Kuric. Liggins erased that plan — and the Cardinals' offensive rhythm.
It's hard to love DeAndre Liggins, he of the refusal to play in Vegas three years ago. He of the suspension last year. He of the formerly inconsistent play and former turnover machine. The guy who couldn't beat out Michael Porter for the point guard job despite far superior skills. He of the unrealized expectations and surly demeanor. Liggins came from the mean streets of Chicago raised in the projects by his grandmother with some baggage and some attitude.
I'm singing his praises for just that reason. This kid has turned his basketball life around in ways that, while not as spectacular as that of Harrellson when it comes to talent and expectations, is still a marvel considering his life circumstances. He went from being a kid with a chip on his shoulder to an adult who does not react at all when fouled hard, pushed, kicked or slapped. At all. He is like a machine, a defensive Juggernaut that can score when needed. Foes will learn to fear him, especially after what he did to the talented Siva.
Liggins attacks his task with unusual single-mindedness. He does not lose his assignment. He throws himself after every loose ball, whether he pries it free or not. He helps on defense when he can, but he doesn't lose sight of his primary assignment, which is usually the other team's best player. He shares the ball with his teammates on offense, and focuses on setting them up or rebounding the ball.
But the most amazing thing is his utter aplomb in respond to provocation. When somebody fouls him hard, he rarely changes expression. He never strikes back. He never woofs, shoves, bumps, or approaches a foe in a threatening manner. Nobody gets to him, ever.
Even after a dangerous foul at the end of the Louisville game, the reaction from Liggins was to look askance at the referee who ignored it and indicate Terrence Jennings, who committed what was surely an intentional and arguably even flagrant foul. With no interest forthcoming from the official, Liggins just shrugged and walked up the floor. He is among the most unflappable players I have ever seen, and the transformation from his former persona is astonishing, even a little scary.
Liggins doesn't look menacing at first, but after he holds your quickest, most talented player to 2-8 from the field, Liggins must seem 6'10" with the quickness of a guard and the wingspan of a condor. Liggins looks to me like the reincarnation of one of the Suffocats. He is playing the kind of defense Cliff Hawkins and Chuck Hayes et. al. made so famous back in 2002-03, throttling their opponents not with overwhelming emotion, but with precision, effort, skill, and a complete disregard for personal safety.
Calipari will get no credit for the transformation of DeAndre Liggins, but he deserves a good bit of it. And you know that deep down inside, he is loving it more than we'll ever know.