All about the SEC: Vets lift UK
For the last two years they’ve been the “other” guys, the Kentucky Wildcats whose names you rarely saw in the headlines, the players who contributed more in practice than they ever did in games.
Now things are different for Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins.
Even though freshmen such as Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight are posting the most impressive stat lines, the Wildcats know their 5-1 start wouldn’t have been possible if not for Kentucky’s two steadying forces.
“Darius and DeAndre … they’re our leaders,” Jones said. “They’re our backbone.”
Blue-collar upperclassmen leading a group of ultra-talented freshmen is nothing new at Kentucky. Last season Patrick Patterson used his work ethic and past experiences to set an example for players such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton.
This season, Liggins and Miller are helping to ease the transition for Jones, Knight and Doron Lamb. Sometimes it means pointing them in the right direction when they’re out of place on the court. Other times it’s calming them down after a bad play, or jumping on a teammate for an ill-advised shot.
“I’m not a very vocal guy, so it’s going to be an adjustment for me,” Liggins said before the season. “But I think I’ll be able to handle it. If anything I’ll just lead by example.”
Liggins has done exactly that through Kentucky’s first six games.
A 6-foot-6 junior, Liggins’ 9.3-point scoring average is more than double his 2009-10 output of 3.8. Liggins is playing 32.5 minutes per game compared to 15.3 last season.
Liggins ranks second on the team in assists (3.2) and leads the Wildcats in steals with 1.5. Defensively, his length has been a menace to opponents on the perimeter.
“He’s our energy guy,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Everything starts with his energy. He understands how we’re trying to play, so he makes better decisions.”
So, too, does Miller, an off guard who has seen his scoring average increase from 6.5 points as a sophomore to 9.8 points as a junior.
Miller is also shooting 52 percent from 3-point range but, again, he and Liggins’ biggest contribution has been their work ethic and the sense of calm they bring to a group of freshmen who are still adjusting to Calipari’s system.
“It helps so much,” Knight said, “to have them here.”
Vital as Miller and Liggins have been thus far, their leadership will be even more essential when Kentucky travels to North Carolina to take on the Tar Heels in the Dean Dome. Kentucky may have faced a hostile road crowd in Portland last month, and the atmosphere in Maui’s Lahaina Civic Center was great.
But Kentucky’s freshmen have yet to experience the type of environment they’ll be exposed to Saturday in Chapel Hill. It’ll be nothing new to Miller and Liggins, though.
Don’t be surprised if they end up making a difference down the stretch – even if you don’t notice it on the stat sheet.
(Last week’s rank in parenthesis.)
1. Kentucky (5-1) – Now in his fourth season, Josh Harrellson is finally getting a chance. (1)
2. Tennessee (6-0) – The Vols have more than a week off before a Dec. 11 showdown with Pitt. (2)
3. Vanderbilt (6-1) – In the past, Kevin Stallings’ teams have been accused of being “soft.” Not this year. (4)
4. Florida (5-2) – Billy Donovan said major changes could be in store after Wednesday’s loss to Central Florida. (3)
6. Mississippi State (4-1) – Kodi Augustus has four double-double and leads the SEC in rebounding with 10.8 boards per game.
7. South Carolina (5-1) – The Gamecocks play host to in-state rival Clemson Sunday. (8)
8. Ole Miss (3-2) – Losing to one of the ACC’s worst teams (Miami) by 13 points isn’t a good sign. (7)
12. Auburn (2-4) – This may be the worst team in the country from a Big Six conference. (12)
Ravern Johnson, Mississippi State – The Bulldogs senior guard leads the SEC in scoring and ranks fifth in the nation with 25.4 points a game. The 6-foot-7 Johnson is shooting 51 percent from beyond the arc and has made at least three 3-pointers in each of the Bulldogs’ five games.
LSU – Maybe the Tigers aren’t as awful as some people thought. Trent Johnson’s squad played well in a 70-61 loss to Memphis before rattling off three straight wins, the latter of which was a 16-point victory over Houston. With Central Michigan, Coastal Carolina and McNeese State up next, LSU could be 8-2 heading into a home clash with Wichita State on Dec. 18.
Rotnei Clarke, Arkansas – The junior shooting guard is averaging 16.6 points for the 4-1 Razorbacks and has reached double figures in every game. His 20-point effort in Wednesday’s win over Oklahoma matched a season high.
Bruce Pearl’s coaching ability – Say what you want about Pearl, but there’s no denying the man can coach. Tennessee’s 6-0 start and Preseason NIT championship run has been the SEC’s most-intriguing storyline thus far. It will be interesting to see how the Vols fare during the eight conference games from which Pearl has been banned from the bench.
Florida – Things aren’t going well in Gainesville, where the Gators aren’t exactly living up to preseason expectations. All of a sudden, a team that was predicted to win the SEC East is toting two early losses following Wednesday’s defeat against Central Florida. “Our issues are bigger than this loss,” coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “We have a bunch of guys on the floor that make nobody better.”
The SEC overall – Florida lost to Central Florida, Ole Miss was whipped by Miami and, even with Trey Thompkins, Georgia couldn’t beat Notre Dame or Temple. And these are supposed to be the conference’s best teams. After an offseason filled with hype, it’s shaping up to be another mediocre year for the SEC.
Kentucky’s selfishness – Wildcats coach John Calipari is frustrated with his team’s failure to share the ball on offense. He said the problem was particularly evident during Kentucky’s loss to Connecticut in the championship game of the Maui Invitational. “No one would pass,” Calipari told reporters after the defeat. “In the first five minutes, we looked like we hadn’t been coached. Whoever gets it, shoots it. If they can’t shoot it, they shoot it anyway.”
Mississippi State – Not having Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney in the lineup is hurting the Bulldogs, who lost 61-59 to Florida Atlantic on Tuesday. Even before that setback, Mississippi State had been living on the edge. It’s first four wins – all against low-level opponents – came by an average of 6.7 points.
Connecticut shot 57.7 percent against Kentucky in the Maui Invitational, marking the first time a team has shot better than 50 percent against the Wildcats since John Calipari has been the coach. … Opponents are shooting just 35.4 percent from the field against Tennessee … Vols guard Cameron Tatum is playing the best basketball of his career. He’s averaging 12.6 points, ranks second on the team in assists and is using his length to give opponents fits on the perimeter. … Georgia forward Trey Thompkins averaged 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in his first three games of the year at the Old Spice Classic. The Bulldogs lost their first two games before ending the tournament with a three-point win over Manhattan. “The win was just what we needed to get out of the daze that we were in as a team,” coach Mark Fox said. Added Thompson: “We’re still trying to figure out what’s wrong with us.” … Junior college transfer Brian Bryant has played a big role at point guard for Mississippi State. Twany Beckham is still the Bulldogs’ starter, but Bryant is getting more minutes off the bench. Bryant is averaging 8.2 and scored a season-high 15 in last week’s win over Troy. … South Carolina has won four straight games, including an 87-85 road victory over the Western Kentucky team Darrin Horn coached before taking the Gamecocks’ job three years ago. … Bruce Ellington leads South Carolina in points (12.5) and assists (4.8).
THREE TO WATCH
Georgia at Georgia Tech, Tuesday – The Bulldogs need a victory over an opponent from a Big Six conference. Other than a win over Colorado, they have none. Georgia Tech is playing better but is still vulnerable.
Notre Dame vs. Kentucky, Wednesday – This one won’t be easy for the Wildcats in Louisville, as undefeated Notre Dame has been one of the season’s biggest surprises thus far.
Vanderbilt at Missouri, Wednesday – The Commodores may have a tough time with the Tigers and their “Forty Minutes of Hell” defense.