Kentucky's depth will push players to be better

John Clay
John Clay

We must shy from making sweeping pronouncements about any basketball team based on a 58-point drubbing of an obviously inferior Division II team in an opening exhibition game.

Yet between the layup lines — both pre-game, and in-game — there was one major beam of enlightenment to be deduced from Kentucky's 111-53 thumping of Missouri-St. Louis on Monday night in Rupp Arena.

Billy Gillispie summed it up nicely.

"Competition drives you to get better," said the UK coach after Monday's win. "We have a lot of hungry guys that want to play. It's going to be difficult to get playing time. I'm talking about our best players. They have a battle on their hands on a daily basis."

There are 19 players on Gillispie's "roster," 20 if you count Matt Pilgrim, the transfer from Hampton who is sitting out the season. But unlike predecessors Rick Pitino, and to some degree Tubby Smith, Gillispie isn't going to use that depth to wear opponents down. He's going to use it to build his team up.

We know this because, first of all, Gillispie doesn't believe in fatigue. He has said so himself. On Media Day, asked if his club's newfound depth might mean fewer minutes for the workhorse that is Patrick Patterson, Gillispie flatly declared that he certainly hoped not. Patterson was his best player. And a coach always wants his best players on the floor.

What Gillispie does believe is that mantra of "he who earns it, gets it." Players earn it by what they do in the high-intensity atmosphere of practice. To make it high-intensity, Gillispie needs players. Not just players, Gillispie needs good players who will push each other through competition as hard as he pushes them through coaching.

And it is already apparent that, this time around, Gillispie has quite a few of those players.

Josh Harrellson, the 6-foot-10 junior-college transfer, is just what the coach advertised. He is more nimble than you might expect, though the Missouri native has dropped 17 pounds. He buried a three-point shot Monday, as did his 6-9 teammate Perry Stevenson.

"We've got dudes who can shoot it," said an admiring Patterson.

Darius Miller, the state's reigning Mr. Basketball, keeps his thermostat on cool. He's fluid, patient with the basketball. He did commit two turnovers Monday, but he should for the most part avoid the panic mistakes that so often accompany first-year players.

DeAndre Liggins is a bit ahead of Kevin Galloway among the newcomers who figure in the point guard race. For now, anyway, holdover Michael Porter has the job, and if the junior turns out to be the long-term answer, hopefully that will be by production, not by default.

In the midst of the 20, does Gillispie have enough elite talent, outside of Patterson and possibly Jodie Meeks, to make significant noise this season? It is way too early to know that.

"I like our team," said the coach, but then all coaches say that, especially this time of year, when nothing has been played for real, and the promise of what might be is up ahead.

But what the coach must really like is all those bodies, all that competition, that makes the Craft Center a crowded house. What he must truly love is the daily practice battles, where each player attempts to wear the other down.

That's where Kentucky's depth is most likely to shine through this season, what most assuredly will make this team better. Not in games, but in the preparation for games.