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By LARRY VAUGHT
HOUSTON Ã¢â‚¬â€ DeAndre Liggins is as fearless when it comes to speaking his mind as he is on the basketball court.
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why the University of Kentucky junior was not afraid to say what no one else really has as UK prepares to play Connecticut here Saturday night in the Final Four.
Liggins started by elaborating on teammate Brandon KnightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s comment on Tuesday that UK was not as good early in the season as the players thought and that likely led to several of the WildcatsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ eight losses.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think that was part of it, but we did not share the ball, either,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Liggins here Thursday. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Everybody wanted to get their shots and points.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Notice Liggins said Ã¢â‚¬Å“everybodyÃ¢â‚¬Â and included himself in the problem.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s got to be a team game. Since then, we have played like that,Ã¢â‚¬Â Liggins said.
Kentucky lost four freshmen Ã¢â‚¬â€ John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton Ã¢â‚¬â€ to the NBA as first-round draft picks off the 35-3 and Elite Eight team from last year. This is where Liggins went publicly that no one connected with the team really has before.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s freshmen were great freshmen, but we had too many egos (on the team). Everybody wanted to be the man. This year we all know our roles and what we have to do to win,Ã¢â‚¬Â Liggins said.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We play great defense. Everybody is playing good right now. Everybody is coming along and contributing, even (backup center) Eloy (Vargas). We all know what it takes to win and do it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Perhaps that is why Kentucky coach John Calipari said the two Ã¢â‚¬Å“heroesÃ¢â‚¬Â on the team were freshmen Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb because both have accepted somewhat different roles during UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s current 10-game win streak.
Calipari noted that Jones took 44 shots in three games in the Maui Invitational when UConn pounded the Cats in the title game in November. In four NCAA games, he has 33 shots.
LambÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s playing time has dipped slightly because Liggins not only has become a lockdown defender, but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also making better decisions with the ball and knocking off shots at a high rate.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Both Doron and Terrence can go for 25 (points), and they have done it,Ã¢â‚¬Â Calipari said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But we have good kids who respect each other and understand the bigger picture. Both Doron and Terrence understand that my role is not as important as the team.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Junior Darius Miller says UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s freshmen Ã¢â‚¬â€ Brandon Knight, Jones and Lamb Ã¢â‚¬â€ are just Ã¢â‚¬Å“different personalitiesÃ¢â‚¬Â from last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s star-studded freshman class.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“These guys have different personalities and are a different group of guys. We still have a lot of fun,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
Miller acknowledged that this teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ego might not be as big compared to a year ago because UK has lost eight times this season compared to only two going into last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s postseason play.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“At the beginning of the season we thought we could just win and be more successful without doing all the things we are now,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We thought we could just go out and play because of the names on our team. It came back to bite us. We came out lackadaisical. Once we bought into the system, we started doing better.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Miller said he learned leadership skills he has used this season the previous two years from Patrick Patterson, who was also a first-round draft choice and now plays for the Houston Rockets here.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“When I first came here he helped me the whole year and we had a tough year. He never got down on anybody or own himself even in our NIT year. He helped me through a lot of stuff and our team through a lot of adversity,Ã¢â‚¬Â Miller said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He kept his head up and just kept playing and I try to take after him. I am really close to him and look up to him because he took me under his wing.
Miller says he not only feels like Patterson is still part of the team, but thinks the other players off last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s team are, too.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think they are all part of the team still. They talk to us and ask how we are doing and keep up with us. We talk to them a lot. They tell us just not to settle for being here. They want us to win it all.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Calipari says he knows UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s five first-round draft picks from last year are being Ã¢â‚¬Å“teasedÃ¢â‚¬Â because this team is in the Final Four and they were not.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But this is not bittersweet. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a different team. That is over. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve really enjoyed this ride,Ã¢â‚¬Â the UK coach said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“This team went from me dragging them to them dragging me along.Ã¢â‚¬Â
No one has pulled harder than Liggins, who admits he learned from watching last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s talented team play.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But we also know at times last year not everybody quite bough into everything like we have this year and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why we probably have been able to do more than anyone expected,Ã¢â‚¬Â Liggins said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We had five guys that left for the NBA and no one saw us in this predicament. They all doubted us. It feels great now, just like a dream.Ã¢â‚¬Â