The news broke about 1:45 pm and spread like wildfire. In a moment the UK fanbase went from convincing itself that we had a puncher’s chance this Sunday in Knoxville to wondering how much NIT tickets might cost. The word “cursed” was thrown around and if my text messages are any indication, more curse words were spoken within the Commonwealth’s borders than at any time since UAB got all “Squeaky” on us in 2004. Patrick Patterson is out for the year and a huge fog has developed over the Big Blue Nation. A group that had seemingly turned the corner is now faced with yet another injury. We found out earlier today that there is a good chance that Jodie Meeks might play Sunday in Knoxville….and just like that, the injury Gods refused to let us be happy and struck down the most important player on the team. With March Madness coming and the exciting smell of brackets on the horizon, the Cats now get knocked down to Earth as the young man from Huntington has put on his Kentucky uniform for the last time this season.
However after the initial sense of doom, the question remains: Where do the Cats go from here? The injury does come at a bad time, with a difficult trip to Knoxville on the horizon. But lets assume that game goes as a loss. That leaves Kentucky with two games, at South Carolina and home to Florida, that if they win both, they still should be in the tournament. Now there is always the worry that even if Kentucky wins those games, they are punished by the tournament committee for the injury (like when Kenyon Martin went down for Cincy). But leave that aside and just assume that you win those 2, you are in. Can that happen?
Kentucky really has three different options at this point, all of which will likely be utilized. First, they can go extra small with Jodie back and just try and beat teams with quickness and shooting. This of course requires Meeks to be back and effective offensively, but it also requires stepped up production from Derrick Jasper and Ramon Harris. This option wont work against every team (remember the attempt against Louisville) and will cause serious matchup problems. But against a team like South Carolina or possibly even Florida, it can be a quick fix, while putting the best available players on the floor. Another, second possible solution is to be found by seeing what Jared Carter can bring to the table. In recent weeks, Gillispie has been singing Carter’s praises, saying he will not only be a good player at Kentucky “but a great one” and repeating that his time is coming. This may be that time and Carter could get the call he has waited three years to hear.
However while these two options have their potential, in my view the season may now rest on the development and production of AJ Stewart. AJ has always had potential due to his athleticism that is virtually unmatched. While behind a bit from a maturity standpoint, he is as athletic as anyone on the team and was a decent (although not great) shooter in high school. With Perry Stevenson now likely to be a permanent fixture in the lineup, it may be up to AJ to take Perry’s spot….coming off the bench and providing energy and scoring. There will be teams that UK will play that have two athletic big guys that prevent the effectiveness of Coury and Carter and REQUIRE AJ to be on the floor. How he reacts may determine which tournament this team ends up in come the middle of March.
Today is a tough day to be a UK fan. Losing Patterson hurts a lot, not just for Patrick, but for Ramel and Joe, who I think were ready to try and make their lasting mark on the program. But all should not be lost and hope completely abandoned. This team has enough talent to win its last two games, beat Ole Miss in the conference tournament and end up hearing their name on Selection Sunday. It may be a bit more unlikely now, but it certainly isnt impossible. The Cats are down, but if the players mentioned above can step up, they need not be out.