SEC's Team of Week passes prosperity test

John Clay
John Clay

ATHENS, Ga. — OK, Georgia is bad. Real bad. That's a given.

The Bulldogs squeezed out 40 points last Wednesday at Vanderbilt. They exploded for 45 on this Sunday against Kentucky. They are a team of serial shortcomings, bad shooting and bad ballhandling coupled with, in this case, bad effort.

Yet, on the other hand, Kentucky is good. Really good. Or at least that's the shower of praise the Cats enjoyed the happy days after toppling Tennessee on Tuesday. Conventional wisdom crowned Jodie Meeks the Player of the Year, the Cats were the team of the conference. The accolades were in free-flow, the back-patting generous.

"People were trying to blow our heads up," Patrick Patterson said Sunday.

To those whom much is given, much is expected. Coaches call it handling prosperity. Sure, you want to win. You want to be good. But you can't be really good until you learn how to handle being really good.

On Sunday, the Cats proved they have learned something about being good.

Jodie Meeks scored 22. Patterson scored 15. Perry Stevenson scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and carted home the game's MVP plaque on the way to trouncing Georgia 68-45.

The Cats shot below 50 percent (47.8) from the floor, made just four three-pointers, allowed 15 offensive rebounds, and yet you left Stegeman Coliseum thinking this performance against a bad team was as impressive as last Tuesday's was against a good one.

"There were a million things out there I liked," said Coach Billy Gillispie.

The best: The Cats showed they knew how to handle the glad-handers.

"I thought we showed some great maturity in being able to do that," Gillispie said. "Because we've got some immature guys, some inexperienced guys, and maybe they're growing up."

Growing up right before our eyes. This was a test to that degree. As a team, these Cats had not experienced a win this season like the one they earned Tuesday in Knoxville. As a program, it's been five years, maybe longer, since UK basketball had received the type of positive publicity it received over Meeks' epic 54-point performance.

Those are the type of things that make coaches nervous. Gillispie shied away from calling the Georgia trip a "trap game," but it was just that, a trap.

"(The praise) might throw us off our game a little bit," Patterson said. "Coming off the huge win over Tennessee, he didn't want us to throw it away."

Never mind Georgia. Dennis Felton is a good, hard-nosed coach who demands tough play — "We were very, very soft," he complained Sunday — but the truth is his teams haven't got much done in Athens. For all the talk of toughness, it's his team's offense that is flat-out tough to watch.

Not that Kentucky was in peak form this Sunday. Yet, the Cats were never threatened. Never. They led 16-4 early. A 9-0 spurt near the end of the first half helped make it 38-19 at the break. The Dawgs were never closer than 17 thereafter.

"I'm telling you, I was concerned," Gillispie said. "I thought our team did a great job of not letting prosperity (hurt us), because it would have been easy to do after Tuesday night."

There will be more tests to come, of course. After three league games, the Cats are one of three unbeaten teams (Florida and Mississippi State being the others).

They are also clearly playing at their highest level of confidence of the season, a sensation that might have started on the floor of Freedom Hall on Jan. 4 — look at Louisville now — and that has carried through Sunday, when the Cats shrugged off the praise and took care of business.

"This," Gillispie said, "was my kind of team today."