UK Men's Basketball

Is there a Cat who can create?

Mississippi freshman Terrico White was terrico-rific. South Carolina point guard Devan Downey's patented fadeaway jumper nestled softly in the basket in the final seconds. With a big lead nearly gone, Mississippi State's Dee Bost shone with purposeful drives and then an NBA-length three-pointer that barely beat the shot clock.

What links those players besides clutch contributions in recent victories over Kentucky? All are playmakers who can impact games without the help of a coach's X-and-O diagrams.

"At this point of the year, everybody needs that," Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo said last week. "The good teams will have some guys who can create some offense. ... At this point, everybody in the league knows you. Everybody in the league knows your plays.

"So you have to have players who can create plays on their own."

Kentucky's playmakers are ... uh, ... er. As Sarah Palin told Katie Couric, we'll get back to you on that.

The most obvious candidate is Jodie Meeks, the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer. He's dangerous anywhere on the court, hence the much-discussed defensive attention he draws.

But playmaker?

"He's good at that," Lebo said. "I don't think he's great at that. But he's good at that. He's more a catch-and-shoot guy. He can put it on the floor decently. He's very good, don't get me wrong. But I don't know if that's his game, beating you off the bounce consistently."

The playmaker who defies the modern game's incessant scouting can shoot, drive, pass, and do it all in the clutch.

"I'm talking about a guy who can get in a crack and create," Lebo said. "Devan Downey is one of those guys who can create so much offense because he can beat people off the bounce."

Even in this heroic season, Meeks needs X-and-O help from UK Coach Billy Gillispie. More screens seems a good idea to free Meeks from the grasp — sometimes literally — of defenders.

But Gillispie, a self-described "stubborn" coach, seems to resist calls for more screens for Meeks. So no surprise when he calls for better screening, but not necessarily different screening.

UK's other consistent scorer, Patrick Patterson, is a capable passer. But he's a finisher. Besides, as a low-post scorer (key word "post," as in stationary), he's relatively easy to control through double-teaming.

As for the other players, UK has been waiting all season for someone to emerge as a consistent threat on the offensive end.

The point guard is the obvious place to look for a playmaker.

Kentucky faces perhaps the SEC's consummate playmaker in Tuesday's game against Florida. Going into this weekend's play, Nick Calathes ranked among the SEC's top 10 in scoring (third at 20.3 ppg), rebounding (ninth at 7.0 rpg), assists (first at 6.0 apg), three-point accuracy (second at 48 percent) and steals (10th at 1.5 spg).

"Probably the best passer in the league," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said of Calathes. "He's going to get his. What you hope is he doesn't get everybody else's."

To appraise Kentucky's point guards is to borrow a football term. Starter Michael Porter, who trained in the off-season to be a shooter, tries to manage the game. He's tied for 12th in assists in the league. Freshman DeAndre Liggins tries — surely tries too hard at times — to make plays as he learns a new brand of basketball.

Last season, the basketball gods blessed Kentucky with two playmakers. Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford made play after play, especially after an ankle injury prematurely ended Patterson's season.

But Bradley and Crawford are gone. And don't forget Derrick Jasper's transfer to UNLV.

While practically limping around the court last season, Jasper provided Kentucky with much-needed play-making and decision-making. Most memorably, Gillispie saluted Jasper's ability to change a game without scoring a point. Perhaps that is why the UK coach traveled cross-country in a vain attempt to persuade Jasper to stay.

As UK's three-game losing streak suggests, the importance of a playmaker only grows as a season unfolds.

"I think that's critical," Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey said.

Pelphrey, one of UK's "Unforgettables" as a player, noted that the best teams need both structure and a freelance element.

"One without the other, you can be good," Pelphrey said. "But in order to have a championship-type scenario or to win on the road or string a bunch of wins together, you've got to have both. You've got to have some structure and ... some fundamental things you believe in.

"But, yeah, you've got to have a guy that can go out there and get you a basket, the way Bobby Maze did at the end of the game for them."

Maze hit a 15-footer with 5.4 seconds left to give Tennessee a 74-72 victory over Arkansas last week.

"You've got to have a guy that's capable of holding down the middle rebounding-wise," Pelphrey said. "A guy who is going to take a charge or dive for a loose ball.

"But that innate ability to make plays when the moment is right is important."

Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy also noted the importance of a playmaker, saying all teams needed such a player.

"All of us as coaches are looking for difference makers," he said. "Guys to go out and make plays and create opportunities that aren't diagrammed."

Injuries transformed the Ole Miss season into a series of improvisations. After knee injuries sidelined point guard Chris Warren and almost wiped out the Rebels' backcourt, Kennedy looked like a genius when he put the ball in White's hands in January.

When asked if he envisioned White, a 6-foot-5 wing, as a point guard during the recruiting process, Kennedy laughed.

"I wish I could sit here and tell you I did, that I had this great vision for him," the Ole Miss coach said. "Desperate times call for desperate measures."

Succeeding in such situations is the essence of exceptional playmaking.

  Comments