Dirty work is Liggins' business

Guard eagerly accepts role as Cats' lock-down defender

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 3, 2011 

Before Kentucky games, an assistant trainer offers well-intended words of encouragement to DeAndre Liggins.

"He always tells me to score 20 points," Liggins said on Sunday. "I tell him, it's not about that. If I score two points and we win, I'm happy because I know I did my job. He's, like, 'You're right, 'Dre.' "

Being a defensive stopper does not mean rose petals at your feet and the sound of hosannas in your ears. Such recognition is reserved for basketball's offensive stars.

"I'm not a big-time scorer," Liggins said. "I'm a defender. That's my role."

In post-game news conferences, UK Coach John Calipari does not wait for a question to prompt a mention of Liggins' value to the team. He volunteers words of praise.

Then there are games like Kentucky's victory over Louisville on Friday in which Liggins' contributions needed no extra trumpeting. He showed again that a player can make a big impact without putting the ball in the basket. In the 78-63 victory over the Cardinals, Liggins made only one of seven shots. Yet he played a game-high 39 minutes.

"Some guys, if they can't make shots, then they have to come out," Liggins said before crediting defense as his ticket to playing time. "That's the reason I had the minutes I had in that game."

Calipari assigned Liggins to point guard Peyton Siva, who struggled to a two-for-nine game (zero for three from three-point range). The UK coach said he considered Siva the key player for Louisville.

"It's very hard for me to guard little guards," Liggins said, "You have to stay real low. He's very crafty with the ball (and) running off screens. I just got low with him.

"But I was just so intense. I knew in a game like this, it didn't really matter."

When Preston Knowles got hot in the second half, Liggins volunteered to switch over to U of L's leading scorer.

"Because he had it going for them," Liggins said. "He was their only offense they had going. I knew if I stopped him, I would have slowed their team down."

Even as a high school star, Liggins considered what he called "the dirty work" part of his responsibility. He credited energy and knowing to stay low as keys to good defensive play.

When a reporter suggested that simply wanting to play defense was a factor, Liggins said, "That's a big part of it, too, having the mindset of stopping your opponent."

Calipari noted that Liggins possessed that quality.

"That's what his mindset is," said the UK coach, who noted that a desire to play defense and rebound should be considered a skill.

"Do you have the desire? Do you have the will to play harder than the other guy knowing you can't stop (defending)," Calipari said. "If you stop, you hold and grab. That's what some of our guys do."

Calipari credited Liggins for buying into the coaching staff's defense-first philosophy. Liggins also came to trust in what he was being taught, something Calipari said the player was not conditioned to do while growing up in Chicago.

"He didn't trust, and probably rightfully so," Calipari said. "Trust is one of those things you build over time. He was told (things) growing up and they just left. Different males in his life probably done the same thing. Different coaches told him, 'When you come here you're going to do this, this and this. Then none of it happened.

"So I walk in, and I say here is how we're going to do it. ... I wouldn't trust me, either. He never trusted anybody in his life."

Again on Sunday, Calipari noted how he heard people advise him to get Liggins to transfer. Exhibit A in the case for Liggins to leave came in his freshman season when he famously refused to re-enter a game against Kansas State, a breach of protocol all the more grievous because Kansas State was pressing UK into near submission.

Calipari saw no reason for expulsion. His example did not exactly fit the Kansas State-UK example, but Calipari said he had players refuse to re-enter a game in the final minute of a blowout because of hurt pride.

No problem, Calipari said before adding, "You know why? Because I was that guy. I know how that one feels.

"Other guys couldn't care less if it's 12 seconds to go. 'I've got the Kentucky uniform on. Girls are watching. I am in.' "

Although Calipari has spurred his players by suggesting being scored upon or getting out-hustled for a rebound was a personal affront, Liggins said he tries — sometimes in vain — not to get his pride involved.

"If an opponent scores on me and talks trash, that gets me amped up to shut him down on defense," he said.

Liggins credited the defense he had to play on future first-round picks John Wall and Eric Bledsoe last season as a means for sharpening his skills.

Not that he's immune to score. That universal basketball desire is not lost on Calipari.

"I try to get him baskets late in games," the UK coach said, "just to reward him."

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