Injuries push sophomores into key roles

Entering this season, Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris may have been afterthoughts on the UK roster with attention focused on new head coach Billy Gillispie, outstanding recruit Patrick Patterson or senior guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford.

But 22 games into the season, injuries and other issues have forced the sophomore forwards into key roles.

Both Stevenson and Harris have responded, improving as the season has wore on. But both also need to get better if the Cats are going to extend their season into March, Gillispie said earlier this week.

Complementing Patterson inside, Stevenson has come on strong lately. He scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds in UK’s win over Tennessee, had 12 points against South Carolina and 10 at Auburn and also nabbed nine rebounds against Alabama, all of which came during UK’s season-long five game winning streak.

Stevenson and the coaching staff have credited his improvement to newfound aggression and confidence, attributes the wiry 6-foot-9, 201-pounder once lacked and still struggles with at times.

But Stevenson needs to keep improving, Gillispie said.

“I think his numbers might indicate he’s played better and he has improved greatly, but I don’t think he’s played nearly as well the last two or three games,” Gillispie said. “He needs to play better for us. He needs to be more alert from the very first play. It’s very important that he plays well every single play.”

Harris, on the other hand, has developed into a steady defender and rebounder for UK, at times contributing as a scorer. Harris scored a career-high nine points in back-to-back games against Auburn and Georgia, and before leaving the Alabama game with a hip injury, he scored four points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out five assists.

Harris’s improvement is unparalleled so far this season.

“He’s played great,” Gillispie said. “He’s improved as much as anyone on our team.”

Gillispie would like to see Harris develop more confidence on the court, though.

“His next step would be to be more confident,” Gillispie said. “Be in attack mode instead of safe mode all the time. He’s become a sound defender and a better rebounder. The next step for him would be to be a more confident offensive player.”

Stevenson and Harris have turned into alternative offensive options for Patterson, Crawford and Bradley, especially with sophomore guard Jodie Meeks still suffering from a hip injury of his own.

But both have also been inconsistent at times. In UK’s blowout loss to Vanderbilt Tuesday night, Harris failed to score and grabbed just one rebound. Stevenson scored just five points and had three rebounds before fouling out in the second half.

With Vandy double- and triple-teaming Patterson inside, Stevenson failed to take advantage. In the past, with teams focused on stopping Patterson, Stevenson has found himself wide open in the lane for dunk after dunk.

That didn’t happen at Vanderbilt, and Gillispie has expressed that Stevenson needs to start taking advantage of playing with his talented frontcourt running mate.

“You should take advantage of playing with Patrick Patterson,” Gillispie said. “Patrick makes everyone better. (Stevenson) has to do a better job for us offensively, defensively, on the boards, consistently from the first minute to the last.

“My concern with Perry is that you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

The Cats travel to LSU tomorrow, and if they’re going to rebound from the program’s worst lost since 1989 and make something of their season, it may be Stevenson and Harris that become the keys.