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Out of Africa

As most probably know, our good friends Ramon Harris and Jared Carter have just returned from a thirteen day trip with Athletes in Action to Africa (Mali and Senegal).  The two players have been very talkative since their return to the US, and what they are saying is rather intriguing to this fan. 

First of all these two young men are to be commended on their willingness to experience a culture so vastly different than their own.  Traveling to third world countries can be intimidating, simply because one doesn't know what to expect.  With an abundance of negative stories about out-of-control athletes, it is refreshing to witness two athletes behave in such a selfless manner.  The fact that Harris and Carter represented the University of Kentucky in the grandest of fashions makes the story even sweeter for most UK fans. 


Even better yet are the quotes Harris and Carter are giving about their trip.  Harris, when asked about the impact the trip had on him, had this to say:

"It was a definitely a different experience because in Africa a lot of people don't have anything.  What they have is what they can carry.  We met a lot of people and learned about how they were raised and they grew up, but the entire time they always had a smile on their face.  We talked to men and women that only had a hut or just a corner, but they had a smile from ear to ear.  By seeing that, it definitely humbled everyone on the trip because they were happy even though they didn't have much to go home to.  It makes me think about how I act and how I complain a lot about things that are basically given to me."

An enlightened young man.

Jared Carter had a similar words:

"People always talk about trips to Africa on TV.  People say it's a life changing experience, and it's definitely been a life changing experience for me.  How people handle themselves over there, and what they have, and what they have to deal with makes me thankful for everything that I have - that we have - over here.  It's amazing."

Great commentary on the quality people these two young men are.  I hope they share their experiences with their teammates and friends. 

Appreciating what one has is a character trait absent in many people, but after living through what we Americans would consider hell on earth, ones perspective can be altered.

Almost as uplifting as Harris and Carter's words on the impact the trip had on their lives, is the fact that Carter evidently played unlike he has ever played at UK.  Ramon Harris was long-winded in his flattery of Carter's performance:

"Seeing Jared out there playing better than I've ever seen him play before really helped because it made me want to play better.  It made me want to up my game and play harder than the competition.  Jared definitely did that the entire trip."

"Jared played great.  One game he had 15 points.  The next game he went for 13 (points) - 13 (rebounds).  Another one he had 11-11.  It was the best I have seen him play.  He played harder than I have ever seen him."

"He worked so hard and to see him play good like that  was just great.  It should make Kentucky fans feel good, too, because if he plays like that next year it will make a huge difference in our team."

  Considering Jared Carter has played in a total of 32 games for a total of 152 minutes for UK, I am hopeful that Harris' laudatory words are shown to be prophetic, but I remain leery at the possibility of Carter being a major contributor to the team.  I want to believe ... I want to expect him to play well, but until I witness his play on the court, I simply cannot bring myself to seriously consider what a huge difference-maker he could be.  Or, maybe I can.

What a lot of people forget, or choose not to remember, is that Carter was a highly recruited player out of high school.  Many UK fans refer to Carter as a project, that simply isn't true.  Or at least it wasn't true when he arrived in Lexington.

He chose to attend UK over North Carolina, Illinois, and Georgia Tech; certainly not a list of never-has-beens.  I had high expectations for Carter upon his arrival simply based on the success of the other schools that recruited him.  I was in the minority though, many times I debated my fellow UK supporters on the wisdom of signing a 7'2" "project".  Unfortunately, Carter hasn't been healthy for a long enough period of time to fairly determine whether his recruitment was a wise decision. 

The problems for Carter began November 11, 2006: he dislocated his shoulder, which was a foreshadow of things to come.  In December of '06, in practice, he dislocated the same shoulder, again.  This time surgery was required, which was performed on December 22, 2006.  As a result he played in a total of 3 games his sophomore year. 

Fast forward to June of '07, and Carter once again dislocates his shoulder, the same shoulder.  Another surgery followed.  He did recover in time to begin the season, but his year was a struggle.  Other than the Houston game in December of last year where Carter played 16 minutes, scored 6 points and had 4 rebounds, he didn't really have any significant on-floor contributions.  I heard a lot of Billy Gillispie talking about Carter's improved play, and that Carter was on the verge of getting playing time, but that talk never materialized into reality.

Of course I have an opinion on why that is so.  Reading what Harris recently said about Carter's effort and hard play -- "It was the best I have seen him play.  He played harder that I have ever seen him.  He worked so hard and to see him play good like that was just great."  -- makes me feel that perhaps Carter is feeling liberated from his nightmarish medical history. 

In Tru's evaluation of Carter's play posted yesterday, he lists five areas that Carter needs to improve on for next year.  Four of the five reasons are related to effort, and just plain playing hard.  I think Carter has been playing tentatively because he was afraid of re-injuring his shoulder.  If that is true, and he now feels like he can put forth an all-out effort, then maybe, just maybe, Carter could become what so many have given up on; a major contributor to the team.

It wouldn't be the first time in athletic history that a player performed "soft" because of an injury; in Jared's case three shoulder dislocations, and two surgeries.  In my mind he can be excused from the woodshed for feeling a bit apprehensive about playing hard.  Fear of injury is not the most productive way to play, but in his case it is understandable.  The good news though is that according to Ramon Harris, Carter played in Africa free of fear, and with a purpose.  If Carter has truly regained confidence in his shoulder, or even if he said to himself, " to heck with it, I'm going to play my hardest, and let happen what will happen", then possibly we will see the same Jared Carter that I saw in his very first practice (Carter's freshman Midnight Madness).  That night I saw a guy running the floor, blocking shots, and being very active.  I literally have not seen that same player again. 

To even think about the difference that an effective Jared Carter would make on the '08-'09 'Cats, causes me to revisit the glory days.  The days of victories and championships, beating Louisville and routing Indiana.  One can always dream: 

The major difference (as opposed to last year ) caused by Carter's presence, begins in the middle: Patrick Patterson, Perry Stevenson, AJ Stewart, and Josh Harrellson would find living in the paint a much easier proposition with a 7'2" earth mover occupying the middle.  Patterson would benefit the most I feel, simply because he gets more touches, and can do more with a smaller opening.  All it would take is for his man to START to help out on Carter, and leave him open for just a moment; Patterson would do the rest.  Gillispie would make the opponent pick his poison; double-team Patterson or play everyone straight-up with very little available help; the thought of Patterson operating one-on-one is pleasant, indeed.  Similar to last year, the 'Cats would certainly see a lot of zone, but they would also see a lot of open perimeter shots.  Can Meeks, Galloway, Slone, Porter, and Miller make 'em pay?  Hopefully we will find out.      

A markedly improved Jared Carter would certainly give opponents pause, and 'Cat fans a reason to be optimistic for the now uncommon occurrence of post season success.  But, whether Carter plays huge or doesn't play at all, I will always hold him in high esteem.  Not only for enduring and rehabbing for two years, but also for opting to visit Africa, a place entirely foreign to his own life-experience.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if it turns out that Carter had to visit Africa in order to find his game? 

I applaud Carter and Harris for signing up for the trip, and for getting the most out of the visit.  They have given a good accounting of themselves, their families, and their school.  For that, I salute.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!