Losing DeAndre Liggins Takes the Backbone out of Kentucky

Todd HawkinsCorrespondent IMay 26, 2011

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 27:  DeAndre Liggins #34 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates after a play against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the second half of the east regional final of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Prudential Center on March 27, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

While I’m stoked about the return of Terrence Jones for the upcoming 2011-2012 season, the loss of senior-to-be DeAndre Liggins to the NBA draft will prove more costly to the Kentucky Wildcats next season than losing Brandon Knight or Josh Harrellson.

Before I dive into why, let me give a quick overview on the background of DeAndre Liggins.

Liggins was raised in poverty by his grandmother in the projects of Chicago. His older brother, a local hoops star and 18-year-old honors student fresh off a 38-point game, was tragically murdered, gunned down outside of his high school while defending their sister, who was also shot. A few months prior to his brother’s murder, his father had passed away to diabetes. 

At the age of 14, Liggins had to deal with more tragedy in one month than many have in their entire lives. Without having a male figure in his life to look up to for guidance and the mean streets of Chicago tugging at him, nobody gave DeAndre a chance to even graduate high school.  All this could explain why he was so hesitant to open up to teammates and why he clashed with such an authoritative figure as he did with Billy Gillispie upon arriving in Lexington. 

As great as Brandon Knight and “Jorts” Harrellson were last season for Big Blue Nation, they’re both replaceable. I’m not using the word replaceable as a “diss” on their overall game or to take anything away from what they accomplished in one season at Kentucky—it’s due to the fact that coach John Calipari has pulled off yet another No. 1 nationally ranked recruiting class, according to Rivals.

PF Anthony Davis, PG Marquis Teague, SF Michael Gilchrist and PF Kyle Wiltjer are the next 5-star recruits in line to excel under Calipari’s tutelage. Just as Knight replaced John Wall the year before, Teague will replace Knight at the point. And just as Harrellson (although he wasn’t a newcomer) replaced DeMarcus Cousins, Davis will replace Harrellson at center.

While the Cats have Darius Miller returning at the 3, Gilchrist will now be the guy sharing minutes with Miller in place of Liggins. Question is, can the highly touted Gilchrist replace the intangibles DeAndre brought to the table?

Liggins served as the backbone of the 2011 Final Four team. He brought a Chicago playground swagger and mental toughness to a group that many college hoops analysts considered soft at times in the early to mid season (especially on the road).

Due to the current one-and-done nature of the Kentucky program, the lack of veteran leadership has been a cause for concern within Lexington. Fortunately for the Cats, the soft-spoken junior slasher quietly stepped into a leadership role through his tenacious play on the court.

After a couple years of struggle in trying to find his identity as a Wildcat, something just all of a sudden clicked with Liggins in 2011. It was as if someone flipped the light switch on in his head. He began to display a balance of intensity, aggressiveness and confidence and never looked back.

Then, when Coach Cal and members of the media started questioning the Cats’ toughness, DeAndre started playing with a chip on his shoulder, which led to him being named to the SEC All-Defensive Team.

I’m not an advocate for trash talk by any means, but I have to admit DeAndre was one of the more successful players at getting into the head of his opponent. Despite his much-improved offensive skill set, Liggins was better known as one of the best on-ball defenders in the Southeastern Conference and in return drew the assignment of shadowing the most dangerous offensive backcourt weapon of the opposition each game out.

Not only did he shut down his man more times than not—he’d also be sure to let him know about it just about every trip down the floor. Whenever the camera zoomed in on Liggins during a game, you were more than likely to see some jawing and a frustrated look on the face of his opponent. Kentucky fans eventually created a nickname for Liggins in relation to his craft—“The Mindfreak.” Just ask Scotty Hopson what it feels like to get “mindfreaked” by DeAndre Liggins.

Liggins provided intangibles that helped shape his team’s identity—an identity that it sorely lacked at the beginning of the season—and that you can’t put a value on. As a diehard fan of Kentucky basketball, I hope Michael Gilchrist can bring that DeAndre Liggins-type “swag” back to Lexington. Or maybe the light will turn on in the head of lone senior Darius Miller this upcoming season—and stay on.

But for now, despite the ridiculous reload of talent coming in, it feels like what would be a missing piece to the championship puzzle has left town.