By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Derrick Jasper sat on the chair, leaned against the wall and rubbed the massive ice pack covering his surgically repaired left knee.
A smile spread slowly across the normally reserved Kentucky point guard's face. Never one to enjoy the back and forth with reporters, Jasper seemed only too happy to soak in the attention after helping the Wildcats race by Florida International on New Year's Eve.
Can you blame him? After enduring a painful recovery from offseason microfracture surgery, Jasper wondered if trying to come back this year was a mistake. Normally the recovery period for the procedure is upwards of a year. Yet, here Jasper was seven months later talking about a gutty four-point, 10-rebound, five-assist game that seemed to shake the Wildcats out of their early season doldrums.
"I knew it took a year but I just told myself I had to get back earlier to help my team and be out there and compete," Jasper said.
And suddenly the immediate future doesn't seem quite so bleak for the Wildcats (6-6), who host rival Louisville (9-4) on Saturday in a game both teams desperately need if they want to bolster weak nonconference resumes.
On a team desperate for toughness and leadership, Jasper provides a little of both.
"Derrick is not the savior or anything like that, but he makes so many things so much easier for so many others, and that's what a great player does," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. "He sees the game before it happens and understands how to count and the ball does not stick in his hands."
It doesn't have to for the Wildcats to be effective. Kentucky's got plenty of shooters, but nobody who seems to understand the offense quite like Jasper. A reluctant shooter and an eager passer, Jasper knows his job to make sure his teammates do theirs.
"I think he plays with a lot of confidence and most importantly I think you can see the body language of the players when he's out there compared to when he's not," Gillispie said. "He'll go get it and he'll make some plays that you can't coach."
It's a sentiment that could easily describe Louisville center David Padgett. Hobbled by injuries throughout his three years with the Cardinals, Padgett's career has been a study in pain and perseverance. The latest came on Nov. 18, when he fractured his kneecap in a win over Jackson State.
Coach Rick Pitino all but declared Padgett's college career over the day after the injury, and three losses and a precipitous drop out of the Top 25 soon followed as the Cardinals searched for answers without their captain.
Yet - just like Jasper - Padgett gritted his teeth and returned earlier than expected, playing 26 gutty minutes in a loss to Cincinnati on Tuesday.
Unlike Jasper's relaxed postgame chat, Padgett sat quietly at his locker, answering questions while fighting back tears. He didn't expect to play as much as he did, but knows the Cardinals have little room for error.
"Every single night is going to be an absolute war," Padgett said.
It's a war the Cardinals would have a hard time winning without Padgett, who can run the offense from the high post and may be one of the best passing centers in the country.
"Having him back out there, it means everything," guard Andre McGee said. "We know how much he's gone through to come back."
Padgett, who underwent surgery on both knees following his sophomore year, couldn't even bend his leg for five weeks following the injury. He needed just 10 days after the brace came off to get back on the floor.
Though Pitino said he expects it to take a good two weeks before the Cardinals readjust to having Padgett back, his return gave the Cardinals a much-needed boost. The Cardinals reeled off 10 straight points against the Bearcats once he entered two minutes in, as Louisville played crisply. Eventually the Bearcats adjusted and ruined his return, but the signs of progress were easy to see.
Not that Padgett cared. Unlike his teammates, he harbors no real hopes of playing professionally next season. His lone goal is to get the Cardinals to the Final Four. The sooner the Cardinals can put their early season struggles behind them, the better.
"It's behind us now," Padgett said. "I'm back. Now I've just got to work on getting back in shape. We've just got to win, that's what it comes down to."
Something the Cardinals and Wildcats hope will be a little easier to do now that their glue guys have returned.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)