Column: Bledsoe’s schoolboy toughness will go a long way



Since Eric Bledsoe was an elementary schooler playing ball with high school seniors, he said baskets haven’t come easy.

He had me fooled. It sure seemed easy Friday.

Often the shortest player on the court even since he’s moved up a few rungs from elementary school, Bledsoe doesn’t mind getting battered a bit. In fact, he said he enjoys the bumps to an extent. It makes him feel tough, tougher than the other players who can’t absorb the shots as well as he can.

Even if he’s going to the rim with, say, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound guy in front of him — Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried, for instance — Bledsoe will find a way to get the shot up and oftentimes in.

Playing his first game-of-record against Division I competition, Bledsoe notched 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists. The first half was dreadful: just two points on 16.6 percent shooting from the field. That’s what made his second half so special.

By halftime, he had a reasonable estimate of what an athletic, talented Division I team looks like on the floor, not just on film. With UK leading by just eight points, head coach John Calipari told Bledsoe what he needed to do.

“ ‘Eric, just take over this game,’ ” Calipari said he told Bledsoe.

Bledsoe’s response was not to try to do something he’s never done before, although he certainly had never before scored 22 points in one half against an NCAA Tournament team. His response was just to turn on a little toughness; the kind that started brewing before his voice changed.

Out of the locker room with a mission, Bledsoe said he just didn’t want to be out-toughed. He said he didn’t know if every shot would fall — and that’s OK, considering UK outrebounded Morehead by 19. But he wanted to drive to the basket and make Morehead play tougher.

And in the second half, UK pulled away because of Bledsoe’s toughness.

Each of the half’s most electrifying plays came as a direct result of Bledsoe’s talent, speed and simple unwillingness to be beaten, no matter how big the defender. The most talked about play will be his spinning, back-to-the-basket, over-the-head, falling-down-in-traffic lay-up.

The shot was so improbable with so many factors wagering against it. Yet as soon as Bledsoe let go, you knew it was going in.

“I didn’t see (the basket). I just threw it up to the basket,” Bledsoe said. “It’s one of them prayers.”

He scored four more points in the paint in the second half. Each time he scored in the paint, he was the shortest player on the court. Fellow freshman Daniel Orton said Bledsoe pulls all kinds of tricks in practice to avoid getting blocked. His long arms, Orton said, make his shots tough to alter. Bledsoe credited his hangtime. “I jump in the air and pause for a little bit,” he said.

That hangtime also made it possible for Bledsoe to record two blocks. One particularly nasty rejection happened at the mercy of 6-foot-7 Les Simmons, who went to the left side of the basket lightly challenged. As if from nowehere, Bledsoe leapt, paused and swatted the ball against the backboard and toward a teammate.

“I want them to ball,” Calipari said. “If you can make a play, make it.”

More often than not, Bledsoe looked like a pure baller Friday. One frightening figure, though, was his seven turnovers. But Calipari said those turnovers came not as a product of bad playing but more of a product of having “the ball in his hands 99 percent of the time.” That 99 percent will drop upon John Wall’s debut Monday.

By the way, John Wall debuts Monday. If John Wall plays like he’s supposed to and Bledsoe balls like he did in Friday’s second half, what’s going to happen?