Sports

Fierce return to the floor

For all the happy hoopla that marked the UK2K milestone on Monday night, Rupp Arena's most spontaneous standing ovation happened just past the midway point of the first half.

The standing O was for DeAndre Liggins.

As the 6-foot-6 sophomore was leaving the floor, the applause was for what he had done on the floor and how he had earned a return to the floor.

"The fans have supported me, good and bad," Liggins said before Kentucky's practice on Tuesday. "I'm happy they stuck with me."

Big Blue Nation seems happy that John Calipari has stuck with Liggins, too.

See, if the man on the bench, the one the fans think should be playing, is not the most popular man on the team, then he is certainly the most asked-about man on the team.

Such was the case with Liggins, the athletic but mercurial product of the Chicago City Schools who rode the Billy Gillispie-driven roller coaster through his freshman season.

Then the driver changed, and the season started, and Liggins sat the bench through the first game, then the second, and the third, and so on and so on.

Why? Calipari wouldn't say and wouldn't budge. Academics? Not saying. Violation of team rules? Not saying. A combination? Not saying.

"Once you get to know me," said the coach, "you'll know that I don't throw my kids under the bus."

That, of course, didn't cure the curiosity of the fans, or media. Then, with less than a minute to go at Indiana on Dec. 12, with Kentucky holding a commanding lead over the host Hoosiers, Calipari looked down to the end of his bench and sent Liggins into the game.

The reason(s) behind the absence?

"I'm playing now, and that's all that matters now," said Liggins on Tuesday, the first time since Media Day that he has been made available for interviews.

Circumstances have changed, however. A season ago, with a less-gifted roster, Liggins was seen as a potential point guard on a team lacking that important component. Alas, the role was too big to fill. Too many missed shots. Too many turnovers. By an uncomfortable year's end, Liggins was on Gillispie's barely-used list. He played 30 minutes the final eight games.

Now, surrounded by upgrades, Liggins' role is more defined. And different.

"Pick it up defensively," he said Tuesday.

He did exactly that on Monday. After playing 12 minutes against Austin Peay, the sophomore logged 11 against Drexel, in a performance that Calipari said later, "makes it easy for me to put him in the game."

And how hard was it for Liggins to get to this point?

"It was hard," he said. "I just put everything in God's hands."

"He's (handled it) well," Calipari said on Tuesday before at least hinting it was not one single factor that caused the extended "DNP-coach's decision" tag. Referring to a player with just one mistake, Calipari said, "You're not treating him the same way you treat someone who screws up and keeps screwing up and doesn't do what he's supposed to. And he does the same thing the other kid does, they're treated different."

So now, with Liggins back on the floor, what can he bring to the floor?

"You watch him go in the game, and he's going to be an effective player for us," Calipari said. "And he's accepting his role. Instead of Showtime! Turnover. Missed shot. Air-ball. It's going to be, 'I'm gonna be that stopper.' "

Liggins certainly has the athleticism and the length to do just that. Does he have the mind-set?

"My thing (Monday) wasn't hitting the threes, it was my defense," he said Tuesday. "That's what coach was proud of me for."

Judging by Monday's reaction, the coach wasn't alone.

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