Posted by MATT JONES
LEXINGTON --- Going into Tuesday night’s game against Tennessee, Kentucky coach John Calipari implored his upperclassmen to step and give the Wildcats some much-needed production and leadership. Calipari was surely tired of games like the one last week at Ole Miss in which his three Freshman accounted for 59 of the teams 69 points and seemed to be the only players on the roster who were capable of playing aggressively and without fear. The coach knew what any observer of the Wildcats could see. If Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb are the only scoring options on the team, then Kentucky is headed for a short run in March.
After Kentucky’s 73-61 victory over the Volunteers, it looks as if the message was received. The unheralded group of Kentucky upperclassmen, Deandre Liggins, Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller woke up to combine for 42 of Kentucky’s 71 points, their highest percentage of the team’s output collectively at any point this season. It was a performance that Calipari said was “fabulous” after the game adding, “we need them to be leaders and help us win against tough teams. Tonight they did that.”
Veteran leadership and performance is always important, but it is especially crucial for the very tricky environment created by a John Calipari team. In recent years, Calipari has become synonymous with the “one and done” talent he has coached, as players like Derrick Rose, John Wall and Demarcus Cousins make one year pit stops on a college campus to grace his programs with their uber-talent. When such a basketball force is just dropped from the sky onto a team, it certainly helps the overall talent, but it can make the team chemistry and relationship touchy to manage.
Imagine for a second if you are one of the 20 best players in America out of high school, as Jones, Knight and Lamb are, and have aspirations of a quick move to the NBA. It would be easy to look at your older teammates with a wary eye. You are expected to share the court with these Juniors and Seniors, who are clearly in your eyes less talented or else they would be in the NBA already, and then figure out how best to balance leadership and team chemistry with those who have seniority rather than ability. You want to respect these players, but if they are wilting in close games and forcing you youngsters to not only do the scoring, but also the leading, it could be easy to lose respect and team camaraderie.
That is why it is so important for John Calipari’s team to get production like Tuesday night from his older guys. Because Kentucky only goes six deep, Liggins, Harrellson and Miller will be playing a lot of minutes regardless and they must take on the leadership role for the team. But if they aren’t producing, their leadership ability is undermined and the young Freshman, who have been through no battles and are prone to cracking under pressure, have no one to keep them from making mental mistakes. Thus games like Tuesday versus Tennessee become so important.
Deandre Liggins was particularly impressive against the Vols, scoring 19 points in what was likely his best offensive performance of his UK career. Liggins is known for his role as a defensive stopper and he has established himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in America. He handled that role well again, holding Scotty Hopson to 11 points, but for the first time in weeks, Liggins also took became an offensive creator, attacking the basket and drawing open looks for the UK three point shooters.
It was a performance that recalled the unlimited potential Liggins showed out of high school, when he had similar accolades to those now given to UK’s precocious freshmen. After arriving in Lexington under coach Billy Gillispie, Deandre had a rocky career, clashing with the former UK coach and nearly leaving the program before Gillispie’s departure. His career found new life as a defensive specialist under Calipari, but he has still taken a back seat to the rotating group of NBA Lottery picks that have come through Lexington during his last two years.
But Calipari now believes it is Deandre and the other upperclassmen’s time to shine, and more important tly, lead. He challenged each upperclassman to commit an action to his teammates going into the Tennessee game and each delivered on Tuesday night. Liggins rebounded the ball with authority, Harrellson added energy and effort and Miller attacked the basket while playing significantly less passive than in recent losses. Each decided that as Calipari said afterwards, they would “show that they are good basketball players” and not simply defer to the three freshmen that the 19 NBA scouts in attendance came to see. The end result was only the second game all season in which they accounted for over 55 percent of the team’s points as a group and an impressive victory.
But just as important as the win, the upperclassmen’s performance raised the spirit of the team and its potential going forward. As Doron Lamb said afterwards, “when those guys play good, I want to play just as good for them. They raise our energy and make it to where we can look up to them during the game.” The last point is the crucial one. Rather than just seeing the three upperclassmen as players the talented freshmen must carry, when the older Cats pull their weight, they then have the ability to lead. And that leadership can then make up for the talented freshmen’s youth and inexperience.
John Calipari doesn’t expect to get 42 points from the trio of Liggins, Harrellson and Miller often this season, nor does he have to for success. In games where they score at that rate, he knows the Cats will be difficult to beat, especially if Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight produce their normal offensive outputs. But Calipari doesn’t need star turns from his upperclassmen. He needs performances that are solid enough that they then can create the respect necessary to provide what this team needs more than anything, veteran leadership. Be good enough to harness the respect of their talented freshmen teammates, and this upperclass trio can have an impact much greater than their scoring output. That could then make Kentucky quite a dangerous team.