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Monday Breakdown: The Two L’s, Liggins and Liberty

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Its Monday and there is news aplenty all over the sports world. With Oklahoma and Florida now playing for the national championship, thoughts slowly turn to college basketball and we begin to get a greater focus on who the pretenders and contenders are in the sport. In addition, today we had the bowl announcements and thus we learned the destination for teams all over the country as they try to decide how to tell their fans that Christmas in Shreveport is fun. But here in Kentucky, there are really only two sports stories on anyone’s mind…..both of which are leading to vigorous debate. Today gave us some degree of clarity on both and both showcase the confidence and mindset of their respective coaches:

    POINT GUARD PLAY:

So lets say your an average college basketball afficianado. You watch the Kentucky vs Miami game on Saturday, see Kentucky fall down by 20 in the first half, primarily led at the point by Michael Porter. You then see a team in the second half, taken over by DeAndre Liggins, make a run and put themselves in position to nearly pull of a crucial comeback at the end. If you are that college basketball watcher, you may have believed change was coming today. Of course you would be very wrong. For if you know Billy Gillispie or have seen him operate so far, you know this: The Man does what he wants and he doesnt care what you think about it.

Today Michael Porter played for 34 minutes (twice as many as yesterday), the second most on the team (Patterson had 37) and 13 minutes more than the next highest player (Jodie Meeks with 21). In addition, with the exception of the last four minutes of garbage time, he played 34 of those minutes in the first 36 minutes, thus meaning that basically he never left the game during its meaty part. And why did that happen? Well in my view, that playing time meant one thing and one thing only. It was Billy Gillispie’s way of saying “This is my team and the fans WILL not tell me who to play.” How else do you explain the utter defiance associated with that decision? Now dont get me wrong, I dont mind a coach who has complete control of his team and wont be swayed at all by public opinion….but such a coach is rare. And in Gillispie’s case, that trait is almost magnified as any criticism of his decisions almost seems to make him want to make them EVEN MORE.

The last two games havent been great performances by DeAndre Liggins, but I dont think anyone does not believe he is the future at PG. But when that future may arrive in full is anyone’s guess. The fans the last two days have been borderline disrespectful to Porter, who I believe has to be at least somewhat hurt by what transpires. He was cheered when he got his fifth foul on Saturday and his mistakes were met with audible groans all day today. And individual fans’ frustrations are ubiquitous, culminating with the 70 year old German woman who sat in front of Tomlin today and looked back at him to say, “I cant underztand why hez playing ze Porter so much.” Even former UK point guard Sean Woods seemed to acknowledge the problem after the game when he noted that UK would be good “once they get their point guard position solidified.” That has to mean Liggins.

I admit to feeling bad for Michael Porter. The kid gives over 100% effort on every play and he certainly isnt trying to struggle. But at this point, the playing time he is getting simply doesnt add up. I am all for rewarding the guys who play well in practice….but the best players have to hit the floor, otherwise this team will likely struggle. However ultimately it doesnt matter what I, or for that matter anyone else, thinks about the situation. Michael Porter played 34 minutes today…..17 more than he played in a bad performance yesterday. He did so even though media members and fans nearly all suggested that a change had to come. In so doing, Billy Gillispie sent a not-so-subtle message to the chattering class of Monday Morning newspaper columnists, radio show hosts, bloggers and fans. We will do this my way and that will not change. Unlike most, criticism only seems to embolden Coach Clyde, so I would suspect we will continue to see lots of Porter all year long.

    WE GOIN TO ‘DA LIBERTY BOWL’!!!!”

A few years ago, the Louisville Tom Juriches were about to play in the Liberty Bowl and the Cards’ players made a rap song, the chorus of which was a repitition of the phrase “We Goin to Da Liberty Bowl” over and over. I dont know where that song now exists (but if anyone has it, PLEASE send it), but I thought of it a great deal today as the Cats’ trip to Memphis to play East Carolina was made official. This has been done for a few days and the decision has generally been met with bewilderment by most UK fans that I have spoken with. Most fans prefer Nashville on New Years Eve to Memphis on January 2 and most prefer Boston College as a BCS opponent than East Carolina as a strong Conference USA opponent. The SEC generally agreed and most believe that the conference tried to get UK to agree to a trip to Nashville. But Rich Brooks (and depending on who you ask, Mitch Barnhart) was certain about Memphis, and away we go.

The question as to whether we should have gone to Nashville is now irrelevant, because to Memphis we will head. And just like Marc Cohn on Union Avenue, we will be walking in Memphis chasing after the Pirates from ECU. I spoke with a couple of folks from UK who explained a bit about the ticket price question raised earlier in the week, and essentially said that yes, the Liberty Bowl does have higher average tickets than most games, but that is because ALL tickets are 50 bucks (the 172 dollar price was a package deal), as opposed to other games having varying prices based on seat location. The game will be played at 5 pm on Friday, January 2, just two days before the Kentucky-Louisville basketball game. The Liberty Bowl is excited to have UK in its game for the first time and optimism is high.

Now, not to rain on any parades, but just how high should optimism be? In fact the major question to me is, will Kentucky bring a big crowd to Memphis? All my evidence on this point is strictly anecdotal, but I know VERY few people now planning on making the trip. The combination of the date (so close after New Years), the location (Memphis….egh) and the opponent (Conference USA’s finest) has led most people to say to me that they are planning on skipping out. Now some of this will change as we get closer, but will we see the Big Blue Mist on Beale Street? I will certainly be there (with some of the KSR crew), but I am worried about what we will see in the stands. Between now and then, the University and the bowl have some real selling to do to get the fanbase motivated. It can happen, but I dont feel it just yet.

And then there is the opponent. East Carolina is one of those teams you just dont want to play. Earlier this year they beat West Virginia and Virginia Tech and they are a talented bunch. They play in a bad conference and thus if we win, we get no credit. If we lose, an SEC team lost to a Conference USA team. In some ways, there is no way the game can be successful. Now having said that, on the field it will be a good test. The team gets a month of practice and depending on if Skip Holtz takes the Syracuse job, they may be a team in transistion. But the thought that this was certainly an easier opponent than Boston College (which HAS to be part of UK’s thought process in making this call) may not be 100% certain. Va Tech beat Boston College in the championship game and the Hokies have a loss to ECU. I think ECU gives the BC Eagles a game….and they will give UK all they want as well. But this is the game Rich wants and the opponent he wants to play, so the Cats better be ready to give it maximum effort.

Over the next week, these two issues will dominate the talk around the UK water cooler, and opinions are certainly mixed. But what we did see today for certain was two coaches in Billy Clyde and Rich Brooks, who are firm in their conviction on particular decisions and are going to stand up for them, even though they both are likely unpopular with the fanbase. That shows two men who know who they are and who, for better or worse, will do things on their own terms.

More all day….we start Indiana week, look at some bowl games, and check into the odd situation with the seating arrangment for the UK team.

Article written by Matt Jones