UK Men's Basketball

The pressure's on Porter

Michael Porter knows what's coming Sunday. And he doesn't mean church services, although the game at Louisville that day surely will generate a lot of prayer among Kentucky fans.

Divine guidance couldn't hurt if UK faces the kind of defensive pressure that led to 53 turnovers in the season's first two games and then 31 more against Kansas State.

And does anyone need reminding that Louisville Coach Rick Pitino is synonymous with pressure defense?

"Yeah, we know they're going to bring that press," Porter said after Kentucky's tune-up victory over Central Michigan on Monday. "We can't shy away from it or back down from it."

Porter, whose nine turnovers in those opening two games (losses to VMI and North Carolina) made him the poster boy for Kentucky's shaky ball-handling, voiced confidence that he's better prepared for pressure defenses now.

"Personally, I feel I should be able to handle it a lot better," he said. "I've been more comfortable on the court, and I think that's going to help me out there a little bit."

UK Coach Billy Gillispie is fond of noting how statistics can be tortured into saying anything, but the numbers support what the naked eye sees: Porter is playing better.

In the Cats' first six games, Porter had 16 assists and 18 turnovers. Since then, he has almost a 2-1 ratio of assists to turnovers: 27 to 15.

"It's all about confidence," teammate Patrick Patterson said of Porter's improved numbers and play. "He's just being more aggressive out there."

By his own admission, Porter began the season tentatively. He thought of himself as a shooting guard and spent the off-season on his shot.

Then UK's heir apparent at point guard, Derrick Jasper, transferred. And freshman DeAndre Liggins showed that he was no different than the typical first-year player: He needed time to adjust to the college game.

So, almost by default, Porter became Kentucky's point guard. Or to hear the Cat calls of UK fans, the error apparent at the position.

"I root for him every day," Patterson said. "I know he got a bunch (of flak) from fans. We all know that. In a bunch of games, they booed. For him to put that behind him and just play for the University of Kentucky is just great."

Porter has said he ignored the boos. And he's also said the criticism served as "kind of motivation."

But, first, Porter had to get used to playing point guard, a position that includes mental as well as physical demands.

"I was thinking too much," he said of the struggling start. "That might have led to some of the turnovers. ... Sometimes you over-think a certain situation and don't really react. That's when you make turnovers or you make bad plays. I try to react more and try not to think."

Although never the most athletic player on the court, Porter said, "My best bet is to go north and south, and not play with the ball out there. That just works better for me. I've known that for a long time. I guess I was over thinking."

The difference between the Porter of October/November and the Porter at mid-season is striking. He's more decisive.

"I'm definitely more comfortable," he said. "I feel I can do more of what I want to do. I'm not reacting to what the defense does. I'm trying to do what I want to do. That's what the team needs."

It also helped Porter and Liggins to go through a trial-and-error period earlier this season.

When asked if the newness of the situation contributed to his and Liggins' turnovers, Porter said, "That played a really big part.

"But I don't want to make excuses for myself, and I know DeAndre wouldn't want to make excuses for himself."

The Cats also had to gain experience playing together and learning each other's on-court habits.

"We didn't know our roles," Porter said. "That kind of translated into careless turnovers."

As Porter's floor game improved, his shooting accuracy diminished. Before making four of eight shots (two of five on three-pointers) against Central Michigan, he went through a 10-game stretch making only six of 29 shots (four of 21 on threes). Gillispie spoke of needing better footwork.

Porter promised to get in the gym more and shoot. "I'll figure it out," he said before his career-high 12 points against Central Michigan suggested he had.

Central Michigan spoke of applying defensive pressure, but lacked the personnel to impose its will. Now comes No. 18 Louisville on its home court with archrival intensity expected.

"It'll be a really big test," Porter said of U of L's pressure. "Those type of teams are always hard to play against."