In order for Kentucky to reach its maximum potential this season, there are three guys who have to step it up. They are, in order of importance:
1) DeAndre Liggins: I classify Liggins as Most Important because he’s the guy in the group with the the best chance to make an impact at both ends of the floor. Defensively, Liggins is a long (6’5’’), athletic defender who, when he’s playing smart, gives Kentucky some much-needed 3-point/perimeter defense. Offensively, Liggins—along with just about everyone else—is still trying to figure out what he is—but he is something. As I’ve chronicled before, the guy has too many tools to be a waste with the ball. His handle is solid, his 3-point shooting’s improved (currently at a ridiculous 57 percent for the season), and, outside of John Wall, he might be the best passer on the team. But, as previously stated by pretty much everyone, the key to Liggins’ game is his confidence. There’s a noticeable difference in his demeanor when he finds a way to get involved early, be it by hitting shots or making plays on the defensive end. At this point in the season, it’s extremely important that Calipari find a way to make Liggins a better believer in Liggins, because he’s the number one difference maker for this team.
2) Darnell Dodson: The biggest knock on Kentucky’s title chances right now is its lack of bench production. The Wildcats’ are currently getting only 15 points/game from their bench (which puts them in the bottom 20 percent, nationally), and the one guy who can do the most to fix that is Dodson. When Jodie Meeks decided to take his chances with the NBA Draft last spring, Kentucky lost a lot of scoring (23.7 points per game) and its lone 3-point threat (117 treys last season). Replacing Meeks’ scoring hasn’t been an issue (UK currently has four players with double-digit scoring averages), but finding a player that can keep defenders honest the way Meeks did hasn’t been as quick a fix. Defenses are starting to learn that if they play a compressed zone—designed to clog the lanes, which nullifies Kentucky’s perimeter penetration and makes it easier to double Cousins and Patterson—and take their chances with Kentucky beating them from the outside, they have a shot of catching them on a cold night and walking away with a victory. So far, it hasn’t been a huge problem; Eric Bledsoe stepped up big against Florida, and Darius Miller’s shot has improved to the point that he’s actually shooting a better percentage than Dodson (as are four other Wildcats). But don’t let the numbers fool you—Dodson is the best 3-point shooter on the team. He has the quickest, most fluid stroke of anyone on the squad, and I’m pretty sure any opposing coach would tell you that of all Kentucky’s outside shooters, Dodson is one that scares them the most. So with that said, we need Dodson to be more of a shooting and scoring threat off the bench. His current averages of 7.1 points/game and 38 percent 3-point shooting are respectable, but they’re not necessarily consistent. Dodson’s proved himself to be a feast or fathom kind of guy, doing things like knocking down 6-of-10 treys and scoring 19 points against Hartford, then scoring only two points on an 0-for-4 3-point night versus Louisville, four days later. In order for Kentucky to make a deep tournament run, and keep defenses like Texas and Kansas honest, they need more consistency from Dodson. He’s the only guy on the team capable of having six or seven trey night, which could come in handy as teams start to direct more and more of their defensive attention at Patterson, Cousins, Wall, and everyone else who makes their living in the lane.
3) Daniel Orton: Orton’s minutes have been sporadic this season, thanks in large part to his ineffectiveness with the ball in his hands. Orton’s averaging a dismal 3.6 points/game, and only has two double-digit scoring contests (10 against Hartford, and 14 versus Rider) to his credit all season. Recently, however, Orton has emerged as something of a defensive force in the post, blocking 10 shots over the last five games, despite averaging just 10 minutes of action per contest. On top of that, a suddenly reliable Orton provides Kentucky with the means to give their main horses in the post, Patterson and Cousins, the occasional breather, which should help keep them out of foul trouble and make their time spent on the court more effective.