Winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament with relatively modest scoring contributions from freshman stars Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones got Kentucky thinking about what it can do in the NCAA Tournament when they return to form.
DeAndre Liggins, one of the veterans who more than filled the void, noted the significance of Knight and Jones playing complementary roles in the three victories in Atlanta. "That means we're a good team," he said.
And if Knight and Jones join the fun in the NCAA Tournament?
"Oh, we're going to be a dangerous team going into post-season," Liggins said.
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Before his team played Kentucky on Friday, Mississippi forward Terrance Henry put it plainly. The Rebels would concentrate on containing Knight and Jones. Someone else would have to win the game for Kentucky.
Another freshman, Doron Lamb, helped compensate. Breaking out of a mild slump (single-digit points in three of the last four games of the regular season), he scored 19 against Ole Miss and added another 15 against Alabama on Saturday.
When asked about that increased production, Lamb said, "Well, I know when Brandon and Terrence are struggling, I have to step up. We can't rely on freshmen like we have been for a long time."
Though overshadowed by the freshmen this season, veterans like Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson and Liggins took center stage at the SEC Tournament.
Harrellson, a career backup until this season, made the all-tournament team, in part, because he more than held his own against All-SEC big man JaMychal Green on Saturday. Harrellson outscored (14-12) and outrebounded (10-9) the Alabama big man.
Miller, the SEC Tournament's Most Valuable Player, saw the contributions from the veterans as simply fulfilling an obligation to the team.
"What we're supposed to do," he said. "We feel we have a lot of weapons."
For Miller, the SEC Tournament seemed to complete a blossoming process that began in Oxford, Miss., on Feb. 1. UK fans do not have to be reminded what happened that night when Kentucky played at Ole Miss.
Inside the final minute. Kentucky up one. Shot clock inside five seconds. Wide open on the right wing in front of the Kentucky bench. Instead of shooting, Miller passed to a surprised Liggins, who had to flip up a shot to beat the shot clock. Air ball. Shot clock violation.
Ole Miss comes down and Chris Warren hits the game-winner in the final seconds.
"Just after the Ole Miss game, he approached the game differently," Jones said of Miller. "He didn't want anybody saying bad stuff about him."
"That he was scared to take the shot," Jones said.
When reporters mentioned the Ole Miss game to Miller after Kentucky won the SEC Tournament, he knew what they meant. "I guess I kind of froze up, really," he said of not shooting on Feb. 1. "That's all I can say."
Miller acknowledged the significance of the Ole Miss game on his season.
"I think it was a defining moment," he said. "I look at it that way. I could have easily given up after that. It was tough. It was tough. I had a lot of people doubting me. I just tried to turn it around."
Jones, Knight honored
The United States Basketball Writers Association named Jones and Knight to its Freshman All-America team.
The USBWA named Ohio State's Jared Sullinger as Freshman of the Year.
In addition to Sullinger, Jones and Knight, the first team includes Harrison Barnes (North Carolina) and Tristan Thompson (Texas). The second-team players are Tobias Harris (Tennessee), Perry Jones III (Baylor), Cory Joseph (Texas), Kendall Marshall (North Carolina) and Doug McDermott (Creighton).