Coming off arguably its best stretch of defense, Kentucky took a step closer to adding one of its more defensive-minded players this week.
Medical staff cleared Ramon Harris to return to practice on Thursday, and UK Coach Billy Gillispie raised the possibility of Harris playing against Appalachian State on Saturday.
"I'm not ruling out that he can play ... if he feels like it," Gillispie said at a Friday news conference. "I'm not guaranteeing he will play, but I'm not guaranteeing he won't."
Harris suffered a neck and upper back injury when he collided head to head with teammate Michael Porter when the Cats played Lamar on Dec. 3.
Harris, a 6-foot-7 junior wing from Anchorage, Alaska, has been UK's most diligent perimeter defender. In beating Indiana last weekend, Kentucky limited the Hoosiers to 13 first-half points in a suffocating display of pressure defense.
Yet, Gillispie envisioned Harris helping produce even better defense.
"We really miss Ramon," the UK coach said. "Ramon does a lot of dirty work that has to be done for any successful team. He makes it easier for everyone. ... I've never seen a good team that didn't have a dirty-work guy. The more you have, the (better) chance you have of being a really special team."
UK (7-3) will look for across-the-board improvement in the period between semesters. The Cats will have extra time to improve given that the NCAA 20-hour rule (no more than 20 hours of sporting activity per week) does not apply when school is not in session.
Because there's a game on Dec. 27, UK will conduct a practice on Christmas, Gillispie said.
In talking about improvement goals, Gillispie cited better coordination on defense (half-court and in transition), a reduction in turnovers (which shot up to 23 against Indiana), better timing on offense (passing up too many open shots) and continuing to do a better job feeding the low post.
When asked where more points could come from, Gillispie suggested that freshmen Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins could average double-digit points, Michael Porter could score more if not attain a double-digit average and Perry Stevenson could approach an average of 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Gillispie even saw more future scoring by Patrick Patterson, whose 17.6-point average is second only to Jodie Meeks (21.9 ppg).
"I'd be surprised if he didn't start averaging five or six more points a game," the UK coach said.
With that, Gillispie identified "the missing person" in UK's lineup.
"The missing person is better ball movement and taking care of the ball," he said.
Of course, other teams are looking to improve, too. Those teams include Appalachian State, which beat Charlotte in double-overtime for a marquee victory but lost its last game by 19 points to East Tennessee State last weekend.
"We wouldn't finish in the upper echelon of the (Southeastern Conference), by any means," the Mountaineers coach, Houston Fancher, said this week. "But in our league we have a chance to be pretty successful."
Pre-season balloting by the media and coaches predicted second- and third-place finishes respectively in the Southern Conference's North Division.
Gillispie noted the challenge of Appy State's guards. "A great bunch of guys capable of making three-point shots," he said.
The guards' quickness will test UK's ability to contain the dribble, Gillispie said.
"It'll be a good test,' he said before adding, "Hopefully not too good a test."