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COLLEGE BASKETBALL OPINION: This UK team is an enigma (01/11)

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By Chuck Jones

LEXINGTON — The more one tries to figure out the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, the harder it gets and a headache is sure to follow.

The Wildcats are an enigma. Call them a Canigma.

If you don’t believe me, all one had to do was watch Saturday’s 70-60 victory where the Wildcats led by as many as 20 points before letting the Vanderbilt Commodores back in it in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

“I think if you have a lead like that and give it up, I would be OK ending up with a 10-point win every time, not that we were intending to do that,” Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. “Those are the type of situations that we haven’t been in too much, but if we can get a big lead like that the next time, I think we will perform better when it gets late.”

Gillispie can put whatever spin he wants to on this one, but as the coach of this team, it has to drive him nuts at times.

The Wildcats were dreadful at the start. They didn’t defend the 3-pointer. They didn’t look for the top two scoring options – junior guard Jodie Meeks and sophomore forward Patrick Patterson. Bottom line is the Wildcats looked completely uninterested in playing basketball as they fell behind 16-8.

As bad as they looked for the first 7 minutes, and Gillispie called a timeout with 13:06 to left them know it, the Wildcats did a 180. It was like someone flipped the switch and Kentucky began playing like we know it is capable.

Kentucky dominated the next 23-plus minutes. Those open 3-pointers Vanderbilt was getting early were much harder to come by. Kentucky made the Commodores work just to get the ball across half court.

In a minute stretch in the second half, freshman DeAndre Liggins stole the ball twice in the backcourt, which led to four points including a behind-the-back pass to junior Perry Stevenson for a dunk. His pressure bothered freshman guard Brad Tinsley enough to be whistled for an offensive foul, which led to two free throws by Meeks.

“I thought that we had about a 20 minute period there where we guarded them well and were able to get after them,” Gillispie said. “When DeAndre started to get after them in the backcourt it was a nice play for us to extend our lead.”

Other scoring options emerged in Kentucky’s offense, which has been too reliant on Meeks and Patterson. The phrase stepped up is thrown around a lot in sports, but that is a perfect description for what junior Ramon Harris did. He scored 12 points, including hitting all five of his shots from the field.

His timing was impeccable. On a day when Patterson spent as much time on the floor in the first half as the bench due to foul trouble and finished with only 11 points and Meeks was 5-of-16 from the field, the Wildcats needed production from someone.

But as good as the Wildcats looked as they built what looked to be an insurmountable 55-35 lead, they stopped doing what got them the lead and reverted back to bad habits in the final 10 minutes, which allowed Vanderbilt to close within six on two occasions.

“I think we did (get complacent),” junior Michael Porter said. “It’s kind of weird. I don’t really know how it happened. I still can’t believe how fast it got cut down. The good thing is that we pulled out the win. We need to realize we can’t let that happen again, because you never know when teams are going to pull off that victory and we can’t have that.”

Porter is exactly right. The Wildcats got away with it this time against a Vanderbilt team without its best player. Sophomore center A.J. Ogilvy, who averages 16.5 points a game, sat out with a bruised bone in his foot.

The end result was what Kentucky wanted, but the Wildcats didn’t get there they way they would have liked. They realize they can – and need – to be better.

“I think we’re going to have some stretches where we’ll struggle a little bit but I think we’ll have some stretches where I think we’ll play pretty well like we did today,” Gillispie said.

It sounds like Big Blue Nation is in for a long, head-scratching season.

Chuck Jones is the sports editor for The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 505-1759 or at cjones@thenewsenterprise.com