Kentucky big man Patrick Patterson can throw off defenders. He can laugh off the interest in how he wears his hair. He can even shrug off the pressure of being the key player in reviving a college basketball dynasty.
But the consequences of off-season surgery and a six-month layoff? That's too much for even a strong man like Patterson to easily dismiss.
Going into Monday night's game against Longwood, Patterson has failed to reach double-digit points in two of UK's first three outings this season. That matches his total of single-digit games from all of last season.
So, clearly, Patterson has not been himself, or at least the self UK fans fell in love with in his standout freshman season. After his nine-point game against Delaware State on Saturday, Patterson noted that he's not yet himself.
"I think I'm just working out rust," he said.
Patterson cited the off-season ankle surgery and the rehabilitation as the reason for the rust.
"I had six months off before I could step on the court again," he said. " ... So I wasn't able to do all the things I had to do."
Patterson said he was starting off at "square one trying to pick up everything where I left off."
A pale imitation of Patterson has been productive. He's averaging 12.0 points and 7.3 rebounds. His career-high five assists against Delaware State increased his season total to nine. Of the Cats, only freshman DeAndre Liggins (14) has more.
Yet as Patterson watched video of his games this season he saw a difference. When asked the thought that went through his mind as he watched himself play this season, he said,
"Just slow. ... In the past, I was just constantly moving. Watching tape this year, my feet aren't moving as much. Not finishing plays."
Patterson shared one bit of advice from UK Coach Billy Gillispie: UK's sophomore center is trying to finish around the basket with one hand instead of two.
"It's like a huge transition from where I was last year to where I am now," he said. "I just focus on getting to where I was last year. Just playing defense so hard, going after rebounds real hard and just playing hard."
Patterson also noticed a change on the offensive end. Perhaps it plays a part in his quiet opening few games. For instance, he had only one basket after receiving a pass into the low post and making a move against Virginia Military Institute. Yes, VMI's frenetic style could make a half-court, pound-it-inside approach an afterthought, but one shot?
"Last year when I was watching tape, my feet were moving in the post," Patterson said. "I was moving my body in the post left or right to keep my man on my back.
"This year it looks a lot slower. ... This year I see I'm not as attentive as I was last year."
When asked about Patterson's relatively quiet start, Gillispie has consistently noted two things:
■ His teammates must look for Patterson more. "We have to do a better job of understanding where our bread is buttered," the UK coach said.
The victory over Delaware State was a drop step in the right direction. Patterson took 10 shots. And half of UK's first 10 turnovers came on passes into the low post.
Of Patterson missing easy shots within the shadow of the rim, Gillispie quipped, "He might have been surprised he got the ball."
But teammate Michael Porter spoke of the lesson being learned to get the ball to Patterson even when opponents mimic the strategy of VMI and North Carolina by trying to pressure the UK guards into forgetting about the low post.
Porter reduced the idea to a slogan: "Play fast with the body," he said, "but slow in the mind. I don't think we've done that a lot, but we're getting better."
■ While saluting Patterson's thoughtful temperament and team-first approach, Gillispie asked the big man to be more needy.
"He has to be more demanding," the UK coach said. "That's not really his nature ... because he's the best guy in the world."
But UK fans do not have to worry about Patterson's health. He just needs time to get back in peak condition, rub out the rust and regain a comfort level.
"My ankles are fine," he said. "My feet are fine. It's just all about a mental place."