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Liggins auditioning for leading role in Canada

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Vandy Web Early 02.jpgDeAndre Liggins still doesn't say much, but he looks like a man that's received a promotion.

There's no noticeable strut or change in title, no new suit or new car. But there is an air of confidence around Liggins that Kentucky fans have never seen before.

In practices this past week for the three-game, three-day exhibition trip to Windsor, Ontario, which were open to the media, Liggins looked more poised, more comfortable and more positive than he ever has at UK.

It's as if Liggins is being cast in a leading role. Long viewed as a key role player on two very different teams, the time for Liggins to star is now after Kentucky's mass player exodus to the NBA Draft.

"You go from a supporting role to a starring role and who knows how that turns out, but it's like going from an assistant coach to the head coach," head coach John Calipari said. "All the suggestions now have to become decisions. It's the same when you're in a supporting role to a starring role."

Once thought to be a potential roster victim of the Billy Gillispie-John Calipari coaching change, Liggins found a spot on last year's team as Calipari's go-to energy guy off the bench. Liggins became a spark in key situations, often providing lockdown defense with a gritty, dive-on-the-floor effort and lanky 6-foot-6 frame.

"When he brings energy, it seems like it just picks the whole team up," senior forward Josh Harrellson said. "If we see him going hard, it makes everyone else want to go hard."

Liggins is no longer just providing the spark. If early observations out of practice materialize, Liggins could be the fire of this year's team.

"DeAndre's better than I would have projected when I saw him as a high school player," Calipari said.

After sitting out the first nine games last year for undisclosed reasons, Liggins moved himself from Calipari's doghouse to the penthouse by way of defense, routinely seeing bouts of significant playing time. It was a gigantic leap for someone who struggled so mightily his freshman season.

Could Liggins be making a similar jump from his sophomore to junior year?

The biggest improvement has come on the offensive end. In pre-Canada practices, Liggins exhibited an aggressive confidence to get the ball to the basket while displaying a remarkably improved jumper. Some reports from the media who watched this week's practices indicate Liggins was the most impressive player of the 10 who participated.

"DeAndre should be an attacking player who, I'm telling you, is shooting the ball better," Calipari said. "The guys who are in there were stunned at how he's shooting the ball. ... He's attacking the basket. The biggest thing is that energy, but he has to bring it every game. That's got to be who he is. And then he becomes that player.

"I told everybody last year when you see this court opened up for him you're going to see a player that everybody told me, 'You have to get him out of here.' You're going to see a different young man. I think that's what you're seeing. He's got a great temperament. He's missing layups right now and I'm almost laughing because he's doing everything right but he'll miss a layup and he gets mad. I'm like, 'Come on, it's August.' "

Layups used to the least of Liggins' problems.

In two years, Liggins had to learn to adjust to not only two different coaches but two different offenses and rosters. With each coach came new players and two very different styles of play.

As a freshman, the Cats ran a high-low offense with Gillispie. Calipari came in last year with the notoriety of running the now-famous dribble-drive offense, but even Calipari admitted they didn't run it as much as planned because of personnel.

Now in year two of Calipari's regime, he expects to run it closer to 90 percent this season.

"It was tough," Liggins said. "I didn't play that much for Gillispie so I had to sit and watch and observe. With Coach Cal, I know it's more like my type of system. It was easy for me."

While there is an increase in usage, for the first time in Liggins' career, there is some familiarity as well. Liggins said running the same offense has created comfort and confidence.

"I've been through it for a year," Liggins said. "I know what Coach Cal wants. I just try to do whatever it takes to get on the court and do what he says. It's real nice to be an upperclassman, knowing what to do and going the right way to try to teach these young guys."

Specifically, Liggins said he has been working on ball handling and shooting in hopes of becoming a lead player.

"I've been in the gym just shooting," Liggins said. "Shoot, shoot, shoot until my arms fall off. I want to be a better ball handler. The ball wasn't in my hands a lot last year but (Calipari) wants me to handle the ball more this year."

If there's one area Liggins still has a ways to go, it's his verbal leadership. Liggins talked more in practice this week than he has in the past, but he's quiet by nature and admittedly zones out from time to time.

Liggins said Calipari has been working with him on being more vocal with his teammates.

"He's maturing," Calipari said. "He'll be fine. We have a lot of guys like that. Darius (Miller)'s not a verbal guy. Brandon's (Knight) not a verbal guy. Terrence (Jones) isn't a verbal guy. Doron's (Lamb) not a verbal guy. So all of a sudden you put a bunch of guys out there that aren't verbal, and you're saying 'You've got to talk,' and we're doing every drill to get them to talk with one another. But it's August. They'll come back in September and we'll figure out now what we've got to zero in on in the individuals for the two practices a week of what we've got to do and try to get better from there."

There are still two months left of the offseason after Canada until Big Blue Madness and the season gets underway, but the international exhibition series is a prime opportunity for Liggins to assert himself as one of the leaders on yet another freshman-laden team.

"It's always good to have a veteran or a role player who knows what it takes to compete, how to work hard on a daily basis," Liggins said. "It's me and Darius' job to be a leader. Me being here, I know you've got to step on this court and compete."

Kanter staying home: Calipari confirmed Friday that freshman forward Enes Kanter will not make the trip to Windsor with the team while Kentucky awaits to hear word on his eligibility.

"He won't be making the trip because we've heard nothing right now," Calipari said. "He's with his father, who's in the country, and he'll probably be with him for the next couple weeks until he comes back."

Although Kanter has been practicing with the team this week, the Cats were not expecting to have his services. Kanter's amateur status is under review by the NCAA because he played for a team, which featured professional players, in his native country of Turkey.

Without Kanter, UK will travel nine players to Canada. Florida transfer Eloy Vargas, who has not practiced with the team, will also not make the trip. 

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