LEXINGTON - Kentucky "big man" Patrick Patterson poured in 27 points and pulled down 14 rebounds Saturday against the Florida Atlantic University Owls, but you could argue that it was the play of the Wildcats' "little big man," Landon Slone, that jumped out at you most in UK's 76-69 victory at Rupp Arena.
Slone, a freshman walk-on from Paintsville, played a season high 25 minutes for the Wildcats. He did not have Patterson-like numbers, contributing just four points (on 1 of 5 from the field and 2 of 2 at the free throw line), three assists, one turnover, one steal and one rebound, but it was Slone's in-your-face on the front of the Kentucky defense that disrupted what had been a surprisingly welll-oiled offense for the Owls through the first half or so of this game.
"It was a great performance by him," UK coach Billy Gillispie said of Slone after his Wildcats improved to 10-3 going into a game against Central Michigan Monday night (at 7) at Rupp. "He's a tough kid, and he gave us a lot of energy. I think he can shoot, and I think he can score, and I think he can defend. And I think that the first two or three times he touched the ball today he improved his angle and threw the ball to Pat (Patterson) or to Josh (Harrellson).
"He does a very good job feeding the post," Gillispie added of Slone.
"He's a very smart player. Who knows what can happen for him? I thought he gave us the biggest spark of anyone on our team today. He came in and did the best job of guarding the basketball and putting a little pressure on them."
Those comments are a mouthful, aren't they? After all, Slone is just a freshman and is just a walk-on. And, ironically, at Paintsville High School, Slone was known most of his career as a good shooter and a poor defender.
But he was always a smart player, and so when it came around to his senior year at Paintsville, Slone knew he had to make some adjustments if he hoped to contribute at a program the stature of Kentucky.
"When I was in high school I wasn't that good of a defender at all," admits the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Slone. "Coming from the mountains, I based my game around my offense, and the offense at my high school was based around me. But my high school coach (Bill Mike Runyon) and I decided the thing I needed to work on most was my defense. And in the offseason, every time I had a chance, I was doing something to try and help my defense, whether it was doing slides or lifting weights ... working on my quickness. That and ballhandling were things I knew I had to improve on for this level of play."
Those were lofty adjustments to make for Slone, who averaged 25 points and grabbed seven rebounds per game as a senior at Painstville.
Those numbers were not enough to garner a scholarship to Kentucky from Gillispie. But Slone was not daunted.
"I've always wanted to be here," Slone says of UK. "I've told everybody that a million times. This is my home, and I'd do anything to play here."
Still, as recently as last winter, Slone wasn't sure he'd end up a Wildcat.
"I didn't know earlier this year if I was going to be here or not because I hadn't really been in contact," Slone said. "But as the year went on - I had a really great senior year as a player - I got in contact with Kentucky and came down here, and we decided I was going go walk on. I had some other (scholarship) offers, but they didn't compare to UK."
So in less than one year, Slone has transformed his game from big-time scorer to an in-your-face defender and good passer. And Slone displays the kind of hustle that Gillispie loves.
"Coming to Kentucky as a freshman walk-on, I didn't really know what to expect," Slone said. "I knew if I worked hard and just kept playing hard and competing in practice, I knew it would come. I knew it would take some time to develop myself as a player, but I'm just going to keep working and competing and pushing the other guys, and hopefully I'll keep getting on the floor.
"Coach loves effort," Slone added of Gillispie. "I had a pretty good practice Friday, and what means more to coach than anything is how you compete in practice ... how your attitude is in practice...your body language. Those things mean everything to him. If you don't play hard here, you're not going to play. It doesn't matter if you're on scholarship or a walk-on."
Slone admitted it was a good confidence builder to see the kind of time he did against Florida Atlantic.
Kentucky and FAU were tied 37-37 at halftime in this one and the Wildcats pulled away in the second half primarily behind the unit of Patterson, Perry Stevenson, Jodie Meeks, Michael Porter and Slone.
"If you do what coach asks, he'll leave you in," Slone said. "I'm still building that trust factor, and I want to continue to do that."
Patterson welcomed Slone's contributions to the victory.
"His play tonight was spectacular," Patterson said of Slone. "He was aggressive on the perimeter, and he was able to disrupt a bunch of plays on the defensive end. He was just constantly in the point guard's face, putting a lot of pressure out there. And on offense he was able to distribute the ball to the guards on the perimeter and to the big men. With him in there, we were able to go on a roll."
Patterson said he's seen Slone's confidence grow recently.
"His confidence has increased a lot lately," Patterson said. "In practice, he goes full speed, doing as much as he can for this team."
Patterson then said words that must be music to Slone's ears and would be to any player from the Eastern Kentucky mountains.
"He wears his jersey with pride," Patterson said of Slone. "That's what we see in him."
The only thing gnawing at Slone Saturday was his poor shooting. Four of his five shots were from three-point range, most of them open, and he missed them all.
Gillispie poked some fun at Slone about that.
"I'm very surprised that he went 0-for-4 from the field, and obviously he must be, too, because he kept throwing them up there," Gillispie said of Slone's offense against the Owls.
"I didn't shoot the ball like I'm capable," Slone said more than once post-game. "I have to get back in the gym and work on my shot and get some extra shots up. That was my fault today. I'll work on that and make it happen."
Slone knows he has the green light from Gillispie to shoot. In fact, the Kentucky coach would love to find somebody who can put the ball in the basket consistently to go with Patterson and Meeks.
"If you're open, you shoot it, and if you see somebody else who has a better shot, you hit them," Slone said. "That's the way I've always played. Coach just wants the open man to shoot. If you pass up an open shot, he'll be more mad at you than if you take a forced shot. That's a great thing to know if you're a player."