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'08-'09 Kentucky Basketball: The Guards

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Since the end of last season, arguably the most hotly debated and often discussed topic about the UK basketball team has been the guard positions.  With the graduation of Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, and the transfer of Derrick Jasper, UK coach Billy Gillispie is left with a number of question marks at the lead guard position, as well as the shooting guard spot. 

In this post I will break down what Kentucky lost statistically at both guard positions, and look forward to what the 'Cats have coming back, as well as the newcomers. 

So refill your coffee cup, and strap yourself in, because here we go:

2007 - 2008 Statistics, along with a few comments (Alex Legion stats not included.  He only played 105 total minutes).

  • Joe Crawford -- Points per game (30 games): 17.7 -- Field Goals: 188-401 (46.9%) -- 3-point FG's: 63-173 (36.4%) -- 2-point FG's: 125-228 (54.8%) -- Free Throws: 99-130 (76.2%) -- Rebounds: 109 (3.6 pg) -- Assists: 64 (2.1 pg) -- Turnovers: 83 (2.8 pg) -- Steals: 17 (.57 pg).  Along with his exceptional stats, UK loses a player with the innate ability to finish at the rim among the tall timber.  His fearless incursions into the paint provided Kentucky with a scoring weapon not often found in major college basketball.  Crawford also displayed true leadership on the court by playing selflessly for an average of 33.6 minutes per game (35.9 mpg in SEC play).  Crawford's defensive prowess finally came to the forefront during the second half of last season, and will be missed this year.  Crawford's ability to play both the shooting guard, and small forward spots will be difficult to replace.
  • Ramel Bradley -- Points per game (30 games): 15.9 -- Field Goals: 139-330 (42.1%) -- 3-point FG's: 58-153 (37.9%) -- 2-point FG's: 81-177 (45.8%) -- Free Throws: 142-171 (83.0%) -- Rebounds: 126 (4.2 pg) -- Assists: 101 (3.4 pg) -- Turnovers: 100 (3.3 pg) -- Steals: 48 (1.6 pg).  Bradley was considered by most to be the unquestioned leader of the '07-'08 'Cats.  He consistently iced games with his final minute free throws, and took over games with his ability to penetrate any man-to-man, or zone defense.  Bradley's lock-down defender status was unquestionably one of the improvements responsible for UK's enhanced play once SEC play began.  Playing out of position at the lead guard spot for most of the year, Bradley embraced the challenge put to him by Billy Gillispie and produced when others around him were not.  During SEC play Bradley averaged an incredible 38.0 minutes per game.  He never seemed to tire, and he never allowed his teammates to sulk or hang their heads when games weren't going as planned.  He will be greatly missed, and difficult to replace.
  • Derrick Jasper -- Points per game (20 games): 4.1 -- Field Goals: 29-68 (42.6%) -- 3-point FG's: 16-37 (43.2%) -- 2-point FG's: 13-31 (41.9%) -- Free Throws: 9-25 (55.6%) -- Rebounds: 109 (5.5 pg) -- Assists: 47 (2.4 pg) -- Turnovers: 36 (1.8 pg) -- Steals: 13 (.65 pg).  Jasper was simply a nightmare match-up for opposing coaches last year.  At 6'6" he was able to play the lead guard, shooting guard, and small forward positions.  His ability to pass effectively into the post enabled Patrick Patterson to maximize his talents.  Another quality that Jasper brought to the court was the ability to see the entire floor because of his size.  Jasper miraculously found his 3-point shooting touch which provided UK with another, much needed, outside shooting threat.  Although he never regained his defensive lateral quickness due to his knee injury, he played solid perimeter defense, and was UK's best 'passing lane' defender.  His transfer to UNLV leaves UK with a legitimate dilemma regarding the '08-'09 lead guard spot.
  •  Michael Porter -- Points per game (25 games): 2.0 -- Field Goals: 15-49 (30.6%) -- 3-point FG's: 13-31 (41.9%) -- 2-point FG's: 2-18 (11.1%) -- Free Throws: 7-8 (87.5%) -- Rebounds: 29 (1.2 pg) -- Assists: 27 (1.04 pg) -- Turnovers: 39 (1.6 pg) -- Steals: 21 (.84 pg).  Porter rode the proverbial roller coaster last year: At the beginning of the year he played double-digit minutes, then saw his minutes evaporate.  But, toward the end SEC play his minutes began to pick up again.  Through all of the uncertainty Porter remained one of the most intense, hard-nosed, determined members of the team.  If there was a statistic for floor burns per minute played he would have led the nation.  Although not as gifted athletically as some of his peers, Porter is the type of player that every team needs; he's a totally selfless player who will run through The Great Wall of China in order to gain a victory.  Although he suffered through the aforementioned uncertainty regarding his playing minutes, his 3-point shooting accuracy didn't wane.  He did struggle at times on the defensive end of the court, but his effort was never in question. 
  • Jodie Meeks -- Points per game (11 games): 8.8 -- Field Goals: 27-88 (30.7%) -- 3-point FG's: 16-50 (32.0%) -- 2-point FG's: 11-38 (28.9%) -- Free Throws: 27-34 (79.4%) -- Rebounds: 29 (2.6 pg) -- Assists: 16 (1.5 pg) -- Turnovers: 12 (1.1 pg) -- Steals: 6 (.49 pg).  Meeks had the unfortunate luck of suffering from a steady progression of injuries, one worse than the other. At first there was a stress fracture of his hip, which led to a hip flexor strain, and finally the dreaded sports hernia.  That misfortune resulted in the '07-'08 season being all but lost for Meeks.  He did show flashes of being the great player many feel that he can be in December with his two 21 point performances against Florida International and Houston.  Other than those two games, he clearly wasn't healthy, and was perceptibly frustrated. 

With the departure of Crawford, Bradley, and Jasper, Kentucky loses 37.7 points per game, 13.3 rebounds per game, 7.9 assists per game, 7.9 turnovers per game, and 2.8 steals per game from the guard spots.  Losses not easily overcome, experience impossible to replace.

The Returning Players

Michael Porter -- 6'3", 198 lb lead/shooting guard, junior: Porter is the pre-season leader to start at the lead guard spot.  He has buffed up in the off-season, and spent innumerable hours in the gym working on his shot.  What remains a concern for many is Porter's ability to adequately guard his opponent.  Only time will tell if an improvement has been made in that area. 

What may come as a surprise to some fans is Porter's desire to NOT play the lead guard:

"I can maybe get out (on the fast break) and spot up on threes and knock down shots.  I like playing shooting guard and doing some things from the shooting guard spot.  I feel like my role can be a little more concrete and we have enough good players that I won't have to take up that role (lead guard) that I don't really know what I'm doing."

Wow! 

With a healthy Jodie Meeks, I'm not sure how much playing time can be garnered at shooting guard.

Regardless, Billy Gillispie has certainly been impressed with what he's seen from Porter:

"I've never been more excited about Michael.  He's working into a leadership role and I think he's always had that ability but he's deferred to others, but I think he's taking more leadership responsibility than he ever has.  He looks 100 times more comfortable out there to me." 

With Porter being the most experienced lead guard candidate, I expect to see him manning that position at least until freshman DeAndre Liggins has earned the confidence of coach Billy Gillispie.

Jodie Meeks -- 6'4", 208 lb shooting guard, junior: Meeks simply has to be the co-star of this team (along with Patrick Patterson); the '08-'09 edition of the 'Cats will be only as successful as Meeks' shooting.  With limited outside shooting threats at his disposal, Gillispie will be relying on Meeks to carry a large part of the scoring load.  There will be ample opportunity for Meeks to take uncontested jumpers because of the presence of Patterson underneath.  I expect the 'inside-out' passes to be plentiful, and when the high post offense is being used Meeks should own the wings. 

Hopefully, the questions surrounding Meeks' health have been put behind the team.  Billy Gillispie certainly seems satisfied with what he has seen from the sharpshooter:

"Jodie has been by far this fall three, four, five or 10 times better than I've ever seen him and hopefully that continues because it's all based on him being healthy.  I don't know if he was ever healthy last year and I'm talking about this time of year when we first started because he doesn't look like what he looked like last year.  He's in phenomenal condition."   

Meeks has taken a philosophical approach to his lost season:

"Seeing what happens when you don't play helped me.  I think I became a lot smarter about the game just watching time clock management and how defenses move and react.  I believe everything happens for a reason.  Maybe I needed that to make me work even harder and come back for a better season."

No attitude adjustment needed here.

I'm expecting an All-SEC type of year from Meeks ... if not, UK risks being one-dimensional, and that's never good.

The Newcomers

DeAndre Liggins -- 6'6", 200 lb lead guard, freshman: Last year at Findlay Prep Liggins averaged 13.6 points per game, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists.  A Derrick Jasper clone in many respects, Liggins is blessed with the unusual combination of size and a point guard skill set, as well an ability to rebound the basketball.  His proficiency at threading a pass through defenders is just one of the aspects of his game that excites the UK coaching staff, as well as the UK faithful.  He has worked hard on his outside shooting (which means teams can't sag off of him), but on a team with Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, Liggins needs to concentrate on his defense (which is true of most freshman), and his game management skills. 

His passing ability has already reached legendary status among his teammates.  Junior forward Perry Stevenson had this to say about being ready to receive the rock from Liggins:

"DeAndre is a great passer.  I've seen him make passes that NBA point guards make; between the legs, behind the back, normal bounce passes.  He can squeeze it in there. Now, it's up to everybody else to catch it, but you're forced to catch it or it will hit you in the chest.  It's right there every time."  

Liggins also likes to push the ball quickly up the court, which should delight even the most cantankerous of UK fans.  With some big-time college experience, Liggins will make UK a fine lead guard ... it's only a matter of time.

Coach Billy Gillispie couldn't be more pleased with his 'lead guard in-waiting:'

"Liggins has been better than I thought he would be and I thought he would be really good.  He's shooting the ball much better than I thought he would probably shoot it at this point.  Him being able to shoot the basketball is the only thing anyone has ever been concerned about and I thought he was a shot maker when games really meant a lot but I didn't think he would be considered a great shooter.  If he can continue (to shoot well) I think he has a chance to be a really good shooter.  With all the other things he has, the ability to pass and rebound, I think when he gets some experience he has a chance to be a realy nice player." 

 

Darius Miller -- 6'7", 215 lb guard/forward, freshman: The reigning Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky, out of Mason County, averaged 19.9 points per game, 7.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.9 steals during his senior season.  And, oh, his team won the State Tournament, and he won MVP honors. 

As smooth as Brad Pitt, and as silky as grandma's chocolate meringue pie, Miller has worked his bee-hind off this past summer honing his jump shot, which has made him a viable threat to enjoy serious playing time on the perimeter, in this his freshman year.  With versatility as his primary weapon, Miller has already opened the eyes, and 'posterized' his new teammates. 

He's one of the few players who play hard all the time, but look nonchalant while placing a dagger squarely into the chest cavity of his opponents.  He simply does it all: rebounds, passes, plays defense, handles the ball, and he has that indescribable instinct -- a nose for the ball.

Billy Gillispie likes what he sees:

"We've always thought he has tremendous upside and ability.  I think he has all the intangible things that will make him a special player.  He's even more than I would have ever imagined at this point.  He's very well taught (thanks Chris O'Hearn), he understands the game very well, he likes to play and I think he's going to have a special time here."

Color Ramon Harris sold on the freshman:

"Darius is really good.  When you look at Darius you wouldn't think he can do some of the things he can but he's real quick and real smooth with the ball in his hands.  He's got a jumper that's almost guaranteed."

Miller will be counted on to provide perimeter depth, and rebounding.  An unusual combination, but Gillispie and UK fans have stumbled upon an unusual player.

Kevin Galloway -- 6'6", 215 lb guard/forward, junior: Last year at the College of Southern Idaho, Galloway averaged 8.4 points per game, 8.6 assists (fourth in the nation), and 4.1 rebounds, while playing only 20 minutes per game.  Galloway is another versatile, athletic, and long player ... just the latest piece to the Gillispie puzzle.  A point guard in a small forwards body, the JUCO transfer has displayed the skills that led him to originally sign with Southern Cal out of high school: His ball handling is exceptional, and he's an underrated outside shooter.  And like Liggins, he sees the floor extremely well. 

Galloway is currently having some issues with playing at an elite level against elite competition, but an adjustment period is certainly to be expected.  Billy Gillispie said as much with these words:

"He's been exciting for us.  He's more athletic than I had imagined and I think he'll grow into being a really good guard for us out there.  He's done nothing but win pretty much for his entire career, even last year they only lost twice."   

 

The operative phrase in that quote being 'grow into.'

Perry Stevenson is certainly impressed:

"He's a really big point guard.  I haven't seen a point guard that big.  He's hard to guard and he's a good shooter, but he's even better at ball handling and getting to the basket.  You put a small forward on him and he'll post him up and score right over his head.  You put a bigger guy on him and he'll just go around him." 

Admit it.  It's exciting to think about Liggins at 6'6", and Galloway also at 6'6", manning the lead guard position.  That combination is what's referred to as 'hard to guard.' 

Galloway, while a bit behind Miller and Liggins at this stage of his development, certainly is an exciting prospect.  If he continues to improve and adjust to the major college game, Gillispie will soon have something special invading an SEC arena near you.

Tru did this expose' on Galloway back in the summer.

Donald Williams -- 6'5", 205 lb guard, freshman: Williams, originally from Baton Rouge (he attended the same high school as former LSU star Glen Davis), transferred to Progressive Christian Academy for his senior year where he averaged 25 points per game.

If one remembers, Williams is the player that is supposedly on scholarship for only this year, even though he is a freshman.  Tru wrote this about Williams and the scholarship situation not long ago. 

It goes without saying that Williams is a bit of an unknown.  Gillispie first displayed an interest in the guard in July after Williams went all Allen Iverson at the Tournament of Champions AAU event; he put on a 3-point shooting clinic at the tournament, which resulted in him being recruited by St. Johns, and Marquette, among others. 

As one can glean for this Gillispie quote, he's still himself learning about Williams :

"Donald is a guy we added late that we're excited about.  We are still learning about him but he gives us another guy that can score, and I think he's a good shooter that can turn into a great shooter.  He's another big, tall, athletic guy."

If Williams serves as more than occasional guard depth this year I'll be surprised.  He is ambitious, though; he's not been shy about his desire to play at a big time major college program.  Well, Donald, desire fulfilled. 

Succint Summary

It should be very entertaining and interesting to see how the starting lead guard position is handled as the season progresses.  With Porter likely manning the spot early on, I expect to see competent, if unspectacular play at the most important of positions.  Liggins will be learning 'on-the-job' with an expectation that he will earn the starting nod prior to the start of SEC play. 

What was previously thought to be a possible point of weakness for the 'Cats in '08-'09, could very well turn out to be a strength.

The shooting guard position, with the good health of Meeks and the unexpected exceptional play of Miller, is in good hands.  As I noted above, I believe Meeks is in for a monster season, which should help propel UK to many more victories than they enjoyed last year. 

But of course, only the upcoming games will tell the tale ...

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!