So, I filed one column before the UK-West Virginia game even started. Another the minute the buzzer sound. For what it’s worth, here’s one final column, that comes after getting a chance to talk to UK coach Billy Gillispie and several Wildcat players after they won the Las Vegas Invitational tonight.
Gillispie shows cool hand with a hothead freshman
LAS VEGAS — I don’t want to say University of Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie was pleased at how much DeAndre Liggins was seething on the sidelines Saturday night, the night he refused to go into the game against Kansas State.
But on some level, he must have been. You could tell it in the way he described Liggins as “a freshman that’s really competitive and wants to play all the time.”
It seems it was hard for Gillispie to stay mad at a kid who takes it that seriously, who wants it that much, misguided though his intensity was.
This could have been a major incident in the UK basketball fishbowl. In Kentucky, the governor could blow off work one day and it would create less of an uproar than what Liggins did in the second half of the Las Vegas Invitational semifinal.
If nothing else, Liggins now knows that when it comes to UK basketball, nothing that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. His bench stunt sent ripples from here to Somerset and beyond. Talk radio, Internet. Even the state’s largest paper, this one, polled readers on what should be done about Liggins. By game time last night, about 1,500 had voted, and nearly half said he should be kicked off the team.
Gillispie was of a far different mind.
“I’m a hard guy,” he said last night. “I’m a hard coach, there’s no question bout it. But I’m a loving coach. I love compeitors and I love guys that get madder than heck when they don’t get a chance to play. I think that he could’ve handled it a lot better. Because I think that it would’ve meant more to his teammates had he handled it better.
“But I don’t have a problem with a guy — I mean, I’ve got a problem with a guy not going into a game — but he’s a competitor, he wanted to play. . . . He’ll have a little extra stuff this week because of it, but we weren’t going to penalize the whole team because of it. I asked the team.”
Gillispie’s was the right approach. It was the approach of someone who kept an incident in perspective rather than making it about his own ego.
This is still college basketball. Freshmen are going to make mistakes. Of all kinds.
Gillispie talked to Liggins. He put some penalties into place. But he also talked to his other players. And they talked to Liggins.
UK sophomore Patrick Patterson said he didn’t know while the game was going on Saturday that Liggins had refused to go in. But when he found out, he said, “I wanted to know why.”
Something tells me that Patterson coming at you for an explanation is every bit as daunting as a Bob Huggins full-court press.
“We all pretty much talked to him,” Patterson said. “We said we all wanted him here. We want him to play. Coach G wants him here and wants him to play. He just had a little moment, and that’s behind him now and we’re ready to play. We had a great practice today. . . . We all just gathered up as a family and talked to him.”
It was easy to smile about it all after the Wildcats came from 12 points down in the second half to beat West Virginia 54-43 in the tournament championship last night. Particularly because of the role Liggins played.
His stat line doesn’t show much — 4 points, 3 assists, 4 turnovers and 2 rebounds in 27 minutes. But Liggins got his hands on at least four balls that became turnovers. He took a key charge late in the game, and created a big steal and threw a half-court pass to Patterson for a three-point play that put the Cats in control at 46-41.
His intensity on the court is palpable. And last night, it was channeled in the right direction.
With his “moment” passed, he had another moment, grasping the Las Vegas Invitational trophy with his teammates.
It’s a moment that would not have happened had Gillispie responded too harshly. But he took the time to look at where Liggins’ frustration was coming from. I’d advise Liggins to appreciate that. I’d also advise him not to get used to it.
Somebody yesterday asked U of L coach Rick Pitino what he’d do if he had a player refuse to play, and he said, “I’d immediately throw him off the team.” He also noted that he might be more lenient on other issues, but if a player refused to play, “He would be immediately terminated.”
I defended Pitino when he was giving Derrick Caracter his dozen chances for transgressions that weren’t in the heat of the moment. And I think Gillispie handled things the right way yesterday.
And because of it, this controversy, at least, will stay in Vegas. And Gillispie will bring a little bit tougher, and tighter, team home to the Bluegrass.