HOUSTON — Two days before what figures to be an epic mano a mano with Connecticut star Kemba Walker, Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins put his defensive cards on the table.
"I'm a defender," he said Thursday at a Final Four interview session with reporters. "I'm one of the best defenders in the nation."
That Liggins would make such a declaration and trust reporters, many of whom he'd never seen before, to interpret his words as confidence and not arrogance spoke to one of UK Coach John Calipari's favorite talking points: How far Liggins has come in his life.
Nine years ago, Liggins was a child growing up in a project on the southside of Chicago. He slept on his grandmother's floor. He did not dream of playing on college basketball's grandest stage. He did not dream.
Never miss a local story.
"I wasn't thinking I would do anything," he said.
His brother, Maurice Davis, served as the surrogate for any ambitions Liggins might have harbored.
"I was going to watch him and look up to him, and not do nothing," Liggins said.
That all changed in 2002 when an older sister's breakup with a boyfriend turned tragic. The spurned boyfriend tried to beat up Liggins' sister. Davis came to her defense.
"I guess my brother got the best of him," Liggins said. "He said, 'I'll be back after school.' And he came back with a gun."
When Liggins got home, he heard his grandmother answer the phone and say, "What happened?"
The ex-boyfriend had shot Davis.
An hour later, the family got the news that Davis died. A life Liggins lived through was no more.
"When he was playing ball in high school, I only played ball in the playground," Liggins said. "But when he passed away, I tried to follow his dream. I played basketball because he did."
That led to a courageous decision. After his junior year at George Washington High School, Liggins decided to attend Findlay Prep in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson. At the tender age of 18, he left everything he knew, admittedly not a comfortable setting.
"Shootings, drug selling, violence," he said of the environment of his childhood neighborhood. "I've seen a lot of bad stuff and negativity. But I moved away, and I matured a lot. Basketball, it changed my life dramatically."
Coaches, like Calipari, do not take credit for Liggins' growth as a person. Findlay Prep Coach Michael Peck is no different.
"To 'Dre's credit, it was all new to him," Peck said of the move to Nevada. "But he didn't run away from it, and he didn't resist it. He made huge strides in one year."
Liggins could have gone to college at Illinois or Iowa — schools closer to Chicago — or Kansas.
Instead, he signed with Kentucky because he trusted then UK assistant Glynn Cyprien.
"He was looking for a father/big brother figure," said Cyprien, now an assistant at Memphis.
Liggins was not an overnight success at Kentucky. Most famously, he refused as a freshman to go back into a game against Kansas State, a bit of insubordination made worse by Kansas State's pressure defense that practically ate up UK's perimeter players.
Noting that the game was in Las Vegas and Liggins was going through the typical struggles of a freshman, Cyprien said, "He was embarrassed.
"But I think it really helped him. He got through the embarrassment that he caused to himself and the university. It made him a better person. Afterward, he realized what he did and the embarrassment he caused."
From that rocky moment, Liggins grew into, if not the best defender in the nation, certainly the best on Kentucky's first Final Four team in 13 years.
"DeAndre has matured the last three years more than anybody I've seen since I've been here," teammate Josh Harrellson said. "He's transformed himself from his freshman year when he didn't play much and didn't do what the coach would tell him to do, to now he does everything coach asks.
"You can see how he's changed. The first couple of years he kept to himself and was kind of shy. But he broke out of his shell this year. He holds his head higher, he talks more, he's more of a vocal leader, and he's just more a part of the team than he was the last two years."
Calipari, who sat Liggins the first nine games of last season, has acknowledged the rocky moments with Liggins. But, no more. Liggins now is perhaps the UK player most eager to please the UK coach.
"I love him to death," Calipari said. "I love him like a son."
Coach and player, Calipari and Liggins, have a palpable bond. In this case, the coach likes the toughness the player from Chicago brings.
"I'm a competitor," Liggins said of trying to contain Walker on Saturday. "That's what competitors do. You've got to take on the challenge."
Then he added with an incredulous tone, "I'm not going to back down."