NEWARK, N.J. — It’s not hard for Kentucky teammates to sense the frustration star players feel when they are defended by UK junior DeAndre Liggins.
“I don’t think anybody plays harder than him. He runs, plays defense, makes open shots. He’s really good, but on defense he’s incredible,” said UK freshman Doron Lamb. “It is hard just to catch the ball when he’s on you. He plays great defense and gets in your head, which is what we want from him. His play is big. He can rebound. Get stops, make blocks. When it comes to defense, he gets to people.”
Liggins embraces his role as UK’s defensive stopper and likes the challenge of stopping a play such as West Virginia’s Joel Mazzulla in last week’s NCAA win.
“My high school, I wasn't a scorer. I was always the guy that did all the intangibles. I knew I wasn't a big-time scorer, I was a defender and a player who did all the dirty work,” he said. “That has not changed here.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari continued to praise Liggins for his play and maturity.
“He scored in high school but didn't shoot the ball. You watch him now, and I will tell you tomorrow he will make shots. He will make shots. But you will also see a fabulous defender,” Calipari said. “And the team needs it, but also he is making his own way now. He's creating an opportunity for himself. There isn't a coach at any level that doesn't want a defender who will go after balls and play with unbelievable energy. That is a skill. Just as bouncing that ball and passing. Shooting is a skill.
“I had recruited him a little bit in high school and I am so happy that he is on my team and he's somebody going to war with us.”
Junior Darius Miller thinks Liggins’ offense — he’s averaging 8.5 points per game and shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range — is overlooked. Yet Miller understands why because Liggins’ defense is so good.
“We are always counting on him to lock down the other team’s best player and now he is knocking down shots and scoring, too That makes us a lot better and gives us another weapon,” Miller said. “We knew he could do it (score) because he’s been doing it a lot lately. But his defense is what makes the biggest difference for us. He can just irritate guys by the way he shuts them down.”
He’ll get his chance again tonight when UK plays No. 1 Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinals here. The Buckeyes have potent outside shooters in David Lighty and Jon Diebler, a versatile perimeter player in William Buford and a creative point guard in Aaron Craft. Liggins could be on any or all of them during the game.
Kentucky senior center Josh Harrellson isn’t sure the Buckeyes know quite what to expect from Miller based on how star players reacted to Liggins’ defense this season.
“When you lock great playes up that normally go for 20, 25 or 30 points a night, they might get only 10 or 15 on DeAndre and they are all tough points because there is no easy bucket when DeAndre is guarding you,” Harrellson said. “It is like a fly that never goes away.You try to get away and it just keeps coming back and gets you mad when it won’t go away. You go get a fly swatter, but DeAndre never goes away no matter what you do.
“You can put him through a screen or anything and he’s always going to be there right in your face when you catch the basketball. He is a great defender and is a key to our team. When he plays good, it seems like our whole team plays good. If he continues doing what he does, I think we have a good chance to beat Ohio State.”
Harrellson says Liggins’ irritating defense — he’s been called for technicals for talking to an opposing coach and protesting an official’s call as well as being targeted both verbally and physically by opposing players — is actually a talent.
“I think it is a great talent. You can’t teach what DeAndre does. You can give everybody the right fundamentals to go out and play good defense and play hard, but the way DeAndre does it he is in your skin, he’s in your face, he’s clapping, he’s getting under your nerves and irritating you,” Harrellson said.
“That’s great for us because it is always a key player he is guarding and when a key player gets frustrated he tends to take bad shots and force stuff. It helps us because we get rebounds and run-outs.”
Yet as effective as Liggins has been defensively, he’s committed only 85 fouls in 1,098 minutes. By comparison, Miller has 92 fouls in 1,087 minutes and Harrellson 84 in 983 minutes. Freshmen Terrence Jones has 85 fouls in 1,099 minutes.
“With how hard he plays I am surprised he is not in foul trouble a lot,” Harrellson said. “Normally when players play that hard they have a tendency to foul or just do something dumb, but he is smart about it.
“He has done it for so long that he knows all the tricks, all the keys, and everything he has to do to play great defense without fouling. That really benefits us and has since day one.”
However, Harrellson did have a playful warning for Liggins.
“He don’t want none of me down there. He better stay on the perimeter where he can dominate those guys,” Harrellson said.
UK Basketball: Liggins is focusing on defense
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