It took two exhibition games, but we finally saw the real Patrick Patterson Friday night. Patrick, although it may be a bit overdue, welcome to the Cali-party.
After a somewhat head-scratching preseason, an exhibition season in which Patterson seemed to be lost in the flow of the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, the preseason All-American emerged when the Cats truly needed him.
With a scrappy Morehead State team nipping at Kentucky's heels, freshman sensation John Wall on the bench with an NCAA suspension and 24 UK turnovers keeping the Eagles in the game, Patterson's calming experience and leadership led the Cats to a season-opening 75-59 win over Morehead State.
Sure, freshman guard Eric Bledsoe was the life of the party (game-high 24 points, seven rebounds and numerous "he did what?" type plays), but it was Patterson who steadied the young gun Cats when they needed it most.
"It's great to have that experience that he has because we have so many young players," freshman forward Daniel Orton said. "Everybody is going to get riled up sometimes and just get down on themselves. To have his experience there is really helpful and to have that leadership and that guidance there is something special."
Patterson finished the game with 20 points and 12 rebounds, notching his Southeastern Conference-leading 22nd double-double of his career. The junior forward did it with an aggressive, assertive tempo that we didn't quite see in the preseason games against Campbellsville and Clarion.
He started the game with an opening offensive rebound and tip-in and hardly let up from there, hitting 9-of-12 shots from the floor, including his first career 3-pointer.
We had heard all season long about how Patterson was going to be this new player in the dribble-drive. We listened to head coach John Calipari tell us that Patterson would be a makeshift forward who could play like a guard, face up to the basket and put the ball on the floor. Patterson was supposed to be "unleashed."
In the first two exhibition games, some of us could have mistaken it for just a leash. Patterson seemed limited and constrained. We wondered the real Patterson was. With all this talk of a possible national championship team, when was Patterson going to join the party?
Well, he finally arrived in a big way against Morehead State.
Calipari will always find a way to find weaknesses in Patterson's game (that's what coaches do), but there was no doubt he made huge strides in the new offense Friday night.
"He's better. It was good to see him bust out, but he' still not there," Calipari said. "There were some plays where he was out of balance. He still should have scored (a little more), couple more rebounds, couple of plays in traffic, couple of defensive things where he backed away when he needed to go out and play.
"But that's what he is. He should be a 20-and-12, 25-and-15 (player). That's what he needs to be, and I'm going to leave him in the game."
Let's make one thing clear: UK doesn't win Friday's game as comfortably as it did without Bledsoe. He was a one-man highlight reel in the second half, scoring a game-high 24 points and dazzling the crowd with ridiculous acrobatic layups. (Did you see that circus-like, falling down, over the head, throw it up and pray it goes in shot off the glass midway through the second half? Unreal.)
"He's just a gamer," Calipari said of Bledsoe. "One of the guys said to me, 'You know coach, he's tired.' And I said, 'Yeah, he's better tired than a few others playing fresh so I'm leaving him in.' "
But the first game of the year might have been a repeat of the early season losses to VMI and Gardner-Webb of the last two years had it not been for Patterson. He was more aggressive on the boards, more vocal with his team and got out and ran in transition.
On a night when freshman forwards DeMarcus Cousins and Orton struggled (11 combined points), Patterson provided the lone low post presence.
"We played 40 minutes of zone tonight. That puts him around the goal more, as opposed to some of the other teams who play mostly man, like in the two exhibition games," Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall said. "He is playing that four spot on the perimeter quite a bit. As the season moves along and he gets used to playing the four and the dribble drive, he'll get better and improve."
When the end of the first half got a little too close for comfort, Patterson rejected a shot and hit a layup to give UK an eight-point lead heading into the half. Patterson kind of weathered the storm, if you will. From there, he was able to hand the reins over to the Eric Bledsoe show and let him do the rest.
The tough-nosed mentality of old and the new and improved skill set of Patterson might have finally been ignited by a talk he and Calipari had earlier in the week.
"He and I sat down and had a little heart-to-heart two days ago," Calipari said. "I told him what I expected of him. He's such a great kid. Whatever I tell him he wants to do. That's the greatest thing about him."
Patterson said it had an influence on him this game.
"He's telling me that he wants me to be one of the dominant players out there," Patterson said. "He wants me to pretty much take over and be that leader and that force that he knows I can be. He said he wants me to take shots, lead my teammates and do whatever I can to help this team get back to the national championship."
And sometimes players are just gamers. When the lights turn on and the stakes matter the most, the stars step up.
"Anytime you start the regular season and it's the first official game, a guy like Patrick Patterson is going to step up his game, start playing and be more competitive," Tyndall said. "He'll do all the things that make him the great player he is.
"Tonight was kind of his night."
UK hopes it was the perfect start for his kind of season.