LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Landon Slone and his father Phil were
making the two-hour drive home to Paintsville, Ky. from Rupp Arena
a few years ago when the freckle-faced kid with the close-cut red
hair made a statement that would chart the course of his life.
Sitting in the passenger seat, basking in the glow of a Kentucky
win over Florida, Slone looked out the windows at the mountains and
decided that his life wouldn't be complete unless he played
basketball for Big Blue.
"It was a pretty big game and with the lights and the people
and everything and I told my dad 'I want to do that someday,"'
Someday has turned into today for the freshman walk-on who has
become a spark-plug for the surging Wildcats (11-3) heading into
Sunday's showdown with archrival No. 18 Louisville (8-3) at Freedom
Slone's energy off the bench has sent a jolt through his team
and helped propel the Wildcats to seven straight wins while turning
the quiet kid with the relentless energy into a budding folk hero.
He played 25 minutes and had four points and three assists in a
victory over Florida Atlantic and had eight points and five
rebounds in 24 minutes against Central Michigan two days later.
Slone walked off to a standing ovation after both performances,
just two of what he said has been countless pinch yourself moments
over the last three months since he decided to walk on at Kentucky
rather than take a scholarship at a smaller school.
"It definitely has been a dream, but it's reality and you've
just got to face it," Slone said. "When you have an opportunity
to get out there, you've to got to give it your all. All of your
assignments have to be perfect and you have to give everything
Ask Slone if he thinks all of this is happening a little too
quickly and he just laughs. If there's anything the Wildcats have
learned under second-year coach Billy Gillispie, it's that
Gillispie really does mean it when he says those who practice the
best are going to play.
It's a philosophy that led Gillispie to start walk-on forward
Mark Coury over more talented players last year, a move that seemed
to mystify fans but certainly got his team's attention. It's a
lesson Slone took to heart and helped him believe that if he worked
hard enough, he'd eventually be rewarded.
"(Gillispie) doesn't care if you're a scholarship All-American,
all he wants is you to compete and if you do that and you do it
well and you carry out your assignments you're going to get some
playing time," Slone said.
Slone isn't just seeing the floor at the end of blowouts. When
the Wildcats fell behind early against Central Michigan on Monday,
Gillispie sent Slone in for guard Jodie Meeks - only the nation's
sixth-leading scorer - and Slone quickly responded with a 3-pointer
and a runner in the lane that started a game-turning 36-8 run.
"I think he can shoot it, and I think he can score," Gillispie
said. "He has been giving us a great spark defensively. He was the
best guy in the first part of the game when we were down nine. He
was the best guy at pressuring the ball and making some
extra-effort plays. He got us going a little bit."
"Landon is playing great for us right now," added guard
DeAndre Liggins. "I love his energy and his confidence."
Maybe the only person not surprised about Slone's quick rise is
Slone. He grew up watching the Wildcats win NCAA championships in
the 1990s and would spend long winter afternoons outside in his
Jeff Sheppard jersey knocking down game-winner after game-winner in
The irony is, Slone admits now, is that it's not his shot but
his defense that is helping get him on the floor. A prolific scorer
at Paintsville High - he averaged 25.1 points per game and was a
first-team All-State selection last spring - Slone wasn't exactly
known as a stopper.
That's why Slone couldn't help but laugh when former Paintsville
coach Bill Mike Runyon called him recently and asked where that
defensive intensity was during his high school career.
"He was like 'We're mad at you up here. You never played
defense for us," Slone said. "I really need to keep working at
that. I haven't faced an SEC team or a team like Louisville yet. I
guess when I get to that level I'll try to get where they need to