You'll have to forgive Kentucky junior forward Patrick Patterson if he appears downright giddy these days. If even in the reserved demeanor that is his true personality, Patterson is radiating contentment and, frankly, downright joy.
After enduring two of the most difficult seasons in Kentucky basketball's recent history, Patterson and the Wildcats are in the round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. The Wildcats (34-2) play Cornell (29-4) tonight, and no one will be more appreciative of the opportunity than Patterson.
"This is heaven compared to what's happened the last two years,'' he said. "Kentucky is supposed to be like this. Kentucky is always supposed to have a basketball team like this, like we have now. For myself to transition from the first two years to what we have now, it's a complete 180, and I'm definitely cherishing this and trying to make this a championship year.''
There were times when Patterson, 21, couldn't envision this day. Three years ago, he was a heralded recruit out of Huntington, W. Va., who was seen as the key to reviving Kentucky basketball. But the Wildcats went 40-27 in his first two seasons, lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2008, lost in the quarterfinals of the NIT last season — and lost their coach, Billy Gillispie, who was fired after two seasons.
"Even when we were in the NIT, even when we were losing, I never thought I screwed up,'' Patterson said. "My freshman year, whenever I saw a couple of teams that wanted me, it was like, 'Man, I could have played for them.' Whenever we were doing bad and they were being successful, I was (thinking) I could be a part of that, I could be on that team. But as I progressed on this team and the years went by, I just took that out of my mind.''
Today, the player who carried the bulk of the Wildcats' burdens for two seasons is often overshadowed by his teammates. The bulk of the media and fan attention this year has centered on the No. 1-ranked recruiting class of freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton.
But first-year Kentucky coach John Calipari said his most impressive recruiting job, albeit subtle, was keeping Patterson. Patterson's return not only has provided veteran leadership but has been beneficial for Patterson, who had to make a transition from center/forward to full-time power forward.
"I know he had people in his ear trying to talk him into leaving,'' Calipari said. "Well, he chose to come back. Now he could have come back and said this is my team, I take all the shots. I'll do all of this. He didn't. He came back and played a different position. And now, instead of playing under the basket, he played out on the floor. He improved himself in all areas. And our team goes 29-2 (in the regular season) because of his attitude, because of his approach."
Patterson is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds in nearly 33 minutes per game, but what he provides in leadership can't be measured. Particularly now, when the young Wildcats are a No. 1 seed with heavy expectations to win it wall.
"It's a big role for Patrick,'' said Wall, a national player of the year candidate. "He's been in tournaments before, so he knows how to help us. And in crunch time, he's talking to us and telling us what to do. I'm a freshman, and I'm trying to watch and learn. And he just keeps helping us out a lot.''
"Pat has helped us the whole year,'' Cousins added. "Being freshmen, we haven't been in a lot of situations, and Patrick being a vet, he has. We look to him for advice, and he's been there for us the whole time.''
Being pushed out of the spotlight by the young phenoms hasn't bothered Patterson a bit, he says. He's content, having once been where they are now. Still, even his teammates have asked how he has handled it all.
"I just tell them I care more about ya'll than I care about myself,'' Patterson said. "If I had to choose between them or me playing better, I choose them, because I care more about their success and them playing well. As a leader, I want them to perform well.''
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.