Mark Story: Better thank the 'Billy G. Three'

Ex-coach's recruits giving Cats a lift

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 4, 2011 

At the symbolic halfway point of the Kentucky basketball season — non-conference slate done; SEC schedule dead ahead — it seems an appropriate time to take stock.

So it's time to issue a small thank you to (insert drum roll) Billy Gillispie.

Really.

Even with a slow start Monday evening against plucky Pennsylvania, Kentucky hung an 86-62 demolition on the Quakers in Rupp Arena.

The Cats have made it through the pre-conference schedule with impressive victories over Washington, Notre Dame and at Louisville. They have done it, primarily, with a playing rotation of six iron men.

Of those six main Kentucky players, exactly half — Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller — are in Lexington thanks to the recruiting efforts of Gillispie.

It is beyond debate that the people skills and coaching acumen of the current Kentucky staff of John Calipari have gotten a level of performance out of the holdover Cats that was not going to happen under the motivational mind games favored by Gillispie.

The transformation in the "Billy G. Three" has, in two of three cases, been dramatic.

Harrellson has emerged as something of a UK basketball folk hero. The unlikely star (23 points, 14 rebounds) of Kentucky's 78-63 thumping of Louisville last Friday was at it again against Penn. By halftime, the hustling 6-foot-10 senior was more than halfway to a triple-double — six points, nine rebounds, five blocked shots.

As it turned out, Harrellson "settled" for his fourth double-double of the season, 12 points and 11 rebounds (with a career-best six blocked shots).

Two seasons ago, Harrellson once flashed the potential we've seen come to fruition this season. Against basically the same rugged West Virginia front line that bounced UK from last season's NCAA Tournament, Harrellson recorded a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) in 2008.

Otherwise, the Gillispie-era moment for which he is most remembered was being banished by the coach to a locker room bathroom at halftime during a loss at Vanderbilt as motivation/punishment.

A year ago, Harrellson was basically a "human victory cigar" for UK, playing a whopping four minutes a game.

Now, "Josh Harrellson is leading our league in rebounding," Calipari said, then repeated the same phrase for emphasis.

A commitment by Harrellson after the famous "Twitter incident" — in which the center questioned why Calipari hadn't praised him more — to a strenuous pre-practice running regimen turned the big man into one of college basketball's biggest surprises, the Kentucky coach said.

"He's totally changed his habits," Calipari said.

In a way, the change in Liggins from his Gillispie days has been just as dramatic.

Miscast as a point guard by the former Kentucky coach, Liggins as a freshman was more wild card than Wildcat. Especially memorable was a 3-for-16 shooting performance in an 85-80 road loss at Mississippi that, in hindsight, seemed to be the beginning of the end for Gillispie.

Who would have ever dreamed then that Liggins would become a team-first defensive stopper trusted to do all the "little things" that help win games?

It is what the 6-6 junior from Chicago has become. Which is why he gets 35 minutes of playing clock on nights like Monday when he shoots 2-for-7 and scores seven points.

"DeAndre hasn't been shooting the ball as well lately as he had been," Calipari said. "But I was really pleased with his effort."

Interestingly, the 6-7 Miller has been a puzzle neither Gillispie nor Calipari has fully solved.

For whatever reason, every game for the ex-Mason County star seems a battle in which he tries to break through a passivity that keeps him from being the player his ability level should allow.

Miller had another busy stat line against Penn — 11 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two blocks, two steals. Yet he started the second half on the bench because Calipari thought he had once again been too passive in the first half.

"Darius Miller should be an all-conference player," Calipari said. "That's how good I think he is. I was not satisfied with his first half. I thought he played a lot better the second half."

Kentucky has played better in the first half of its season than many expected. A big reason is the "Billy G. Three."

Which is why, Cats fans, even if you are overjoyed that Gillispie is gone, you owe him at least a wee bit of a thanks.

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