Players supposedly make the biggest improvement from their freshman to sophomore seasons. Improving on his freshman season would be no small task for Kentucky big man Patrick Patterson. But statistics and UK Coach Billy Gillispie say he's doing it.
"I know he was good last year," Gillispie said on a Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference on Thursday. "But he's a lot better this year."
The UK coach described Patterson as stronger and more athletic, plus a better rebounder and defender.
For Gillispie, one play at the end of the first half against Auburn on Wednesday showcased all that improvement. With UK facing its first halftime deficit in league play, Patterson came over as a help defender and blocked DeWayne Reed's driving shot in the lane in the final seconds. Then Patterson retrieved the ball, took a few dribbles upcourt before feeding a pass that teammate Ramon Harris converted for a go-ahead layup at the buzzer.
"Unbelievable," Gillispie said.
After the game, the UK coach called Patterson's busy night (21 points, career-high 18 rebounds, three assists and two blocks) the pinnacle of his sophomore season.
"The best I've seen Pat play all year," Gillispie said. "He was very determined. ... He rebounded way above the rim with two hands. Very, very strongly."
Going into Saturday's game at Alabama, this season marks an uptick in Patterson's scoring (18.3 ppg versus 16.4 as a freshman) and rebounding (9.6 rpg vs. 7.7). Plus his shooting is better from the field (66.8 percent vs. 57.4) and the foul line (77.8 percent vs. 73.1). His 39 blocks this season already surpasses his total as a freshman (31).
Patterson excelled despite nagging finger injuries that the player described as resulting from not cleanly catching the ball earlier this month. The Auburn game marked the first time Patterson had only one finger taped rather than the two middle fingers taped together. That made a difference, said Patterson, who is loath to acknowledge any pain or handicap that limits his play.
"Everybody has their own pain.," he said. "You just push through it."
Reporters managed to pound out one concession from the strong man who anchors UK basketball in its transition to the Gillispie era: He wouldn't try to play through a serious injury if he thought he'd hurt the team.
Patterson flashed his evolving all-around game against Auburn when he shot a three-pointer in transition, his first attempt from beyond the arc this season. Ever the perfectionist, Gillispie gave his qualified approval.
"I want him to shoot some threes," the UK coach said before adding, "I don't think that was the best one to take."
It came with Kentucky clinging to a six-point lead with 14 minutes. Plus, Gillispie suggested that a three-point shot in a half-court set rather than one on the fly in transition might be better for Patterson, who has taken only four shots from beyond the arc in two seasons.
"But I think he can make some," Gillispie said. "He will make them before the season's over."