After an injury sidelined Patrick Patterson late last season, Kentucky played with even more determination. Now UK Coach Billy Gillispie wants his team wary of that same — pun alert — steely purpose from Alabama on Saturday.
The Tide continues to regroup after point guard and leader Ronald Steele pulled the plug on his injury-riddled career earlier this month.
As Gillispie saw it, Alabama's 1-2 record without Steele masks the same grit Kentucky showed after losing Patterson.
"Nobody wants to lose the main guy," Gillispie said at a news conference on Friday. "... Different things trigger enthusiasm. Different things trigger eagerness to play. Different things trigger a little tweak in the mind-set."
Gillispie recalled an incident early in his coaching career in which the opponent overcame the suspension of its leading scorer to win.
"We slept a little bit on that one," he said. "... It doesn't take much. All it takes is 1 percent (slippage), and you can get knocked off."
Gillispie made Alabama's 76-73 home victory over crippled Mississippi sound like a warning alarm.
"No way they could have played any harder with (Steele)," he said of the Tide. "I know they'll miss him somewhat. But they played with a new resolve, in my opinion, in the last three games. They have a bunch of eager guys, and they're playing extremely hard."
Mikhail Torrance, a junior from Eight Mile, Ala., has filled in for Steele in spectacular fashion. Despite starting only three games (none in Southeastern Conference play) prior to this season, he's averaged 22.7 points since Steele's exit.
To put that in perspective, Torrance had been averaging 5.5 points this season. He brought a career scoring average of 3.2 points into this season.
"He's the classic example, so far, of a guy who got an opportunity and, when the opportunity came, he was ready to go," Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried said.
Torrance wasn't even Steele's backup at point guard. He played the wing while senior Brandon Hollinger had the nearly invisible job of relieving Steele, who had been averaging 32.7 minutes. Torrance didn't even play in Steele's last three games.
"I stayed in the gym as much as I could," Torrance said. "I knew opportunity would come. I tried to stay motivated and stay in the gym. When opportunity came, I wanted to show how hard work pays off."
In the last three games, Torrance has made 22 of 35 shots (eight of 15 from three-point range). That scoring burst was a surprise from a player averaging four three-pointers per season, Gottfried acknowledged. The Alabama coach called Torrance's career-high five three-pointers in the victory over Ole Miss "a real blessing for us."
Alabama played Torrance, who is 6-foot-5, on the wing to make use of his versatility, the player said. But the move to point guard was like going home.
"Oh, I've been playing point guard all my life," he said. "I'm back comfortable."
Torrance's five three-pointers were the only ones Alabama made against Ole Miss. The new point guard was an 18.6-percent shooter from beyond the arc going into this season so it might be hard for Alabama to improve much on the SEC's worst three-point accuracy (29.7 percent).
"Sometimes you are what you are," Gottfried said earlier this season when a reporter asked about better perimeter shooting in the future. "You can't reinvent yourself. We may have a team that isn't a great three-point shooting team.
"We have to find ways we can be successful."
Gillispie noted Alabama's athleticism, beginning with wing Alonzo Gee and including heralded freshman forward and McDonald's All-American JaMychal Green.
"They have athletes at every position," the UK coach said. "... We haven't fared that well against quickness (in terms) of taking care of the ball."
After losses in the first two games without Steele, Gottfried sounded like a coach putting a serious downshift on team objectives.
"We have to make sure we keep getting better," he said. "That's our main focus right now. ...
"What we're not going to do is sit around and make excuses."