Now, I'm not normally one of those sky-is-falling type of fans who calls for the coaches head or blows-up talk radio shows after each loss. No team is perfect, and mistakes are going to happen. A glance through the Top 25 right now reveals exactly zero undefeated teams, so losses are going to happen to everyone. It's just the nature of the game when you're dealing with young players, who despite their basketball ability, are still 19 and 20 years old.
But with only two games left in the regular season, each loss for the Cats is starting to push more and more fans toward the panic button. First, there was a bad loss at Vanderbilt two weeks ago, a game in which the Cats never developed an offensive rhythm without the services of Patrick Patterson, who sat out with an ankle injury. Upon his return, the Cats promptly blew out preseason SEC favorite Tennessee for the second time this season, leading fans to believe that they were back on track.
Then Wednesday happened.
The Cats traveled to Columbia, primed for a match-up with South Carolina to gain sole possession of first place in the SEC East. A flurry of blocked shots, dunks and three-pointers later, the Gamecocks were celebrating a 77-59 win over the Cats, and it wasn't even that close. The Cats were dominated from the start of the game, allowing Carolina guard Devan Downey to roam wherever he pleased on the court, while Patterson saw many of his first-half shots end up sailing toward the stands...a result of terrific help-side defense by the Gamecocks.
To make matters worse, rumors abound after the game that sophomore forward AJ Stewart had either quit or been kicked off the team, depending on the source. Losing Stewart, who averages only two point and one rebound in just under nine minutes, wasn't going to alter the team's game plan much, but it certainly wasn't a good sign for team that is playing itself squarely onto the bubble. With whispers growing louder than ever about some of the players' dislike of Gillispie's coaching style, it seemed the Cats were on the verge of an implosion.
Then Saturday happened.
With SEC leader LSU in town, the Cats had a chance to make a statement. And after spotting the Tigers an eight-point lead at the half, they came out fired up for the second half, eventually building a 10-point lead. All seemed to be well for Big Blue. They had their backs to the wall, and were coming out fighting. Even Stewart was enjoying the game, apparently having been voted to rejoin the team by his teammates. NCAA...here we come!!
But as quickly as the good vibes began to spread throughout Rupp Arena, the Tigers made their comeback, behind the play of Marcus Thornton and Tasmin Mitchell. By the time Mitchell buried a game-wining three with just under ten seconds left, the tension in Rupp could have been cut with knife. And when Jodie Meeks' attempt to send the game into OT went wide left, you could almost hear the collective groan across the Bluegrass.
And once again, the drama didn't end on the court, In the post-game press conference, Gillispie appeared to lay the blame for the loss on one of the players. Whereas most coaches emphasize winning and losing as a team, and try to shield their players from as much criticism as possible, Gillispie dropped this bomb a few minutes after the game.
"If I don't play one guy in the second half, we win," he said, refusing to identify the player, and in the process, leaving the window wide open for speculation by the media and fans.
Wow. Talk about throwing someone under the bus.
When's the last time Roy Williams said something like that about an individual player? Mike Krzyzewski? Jim Calhoun? If some of the Cats were playing with one eye on the bench before, scared of making a mistake, how loose do you think they'll be playing now?
The Cats are certainly not out of NCAA contention, and barring a complete collapse, I still think they're in. They have a home date with cellar-dweller Georgia and then they travel to Florida to end the season. Both games are very winnable, which would give them a 21-10 record (10-6 in the SEC) heading into the SEC Tourney, which appears to be up for grabs with no dominant team in the league.
But then again, the Cats shouldn't have lost to a mediocre Vandy team. They shouldn't have been totally outclassed by South Carolina, They probably should have been able to hold a double-digit second half lead on their home court against LSU. Quite simply, there is no telling which UK team will show up for the final week of the season.
At a time in the year when teams are supposed to building toward the postseason, these Cats are crumbling, both on the court and within. Gillispie has already drawn criticism for his odd rotations, and selective punishments, such as DeAndre Liggins being seemingly rewarded for his refusal to re-enter a game against Kansas State with 27 minutes the next night against West Virginia. Now, having effectively blamed a loss on one player, his seat is going to only get hotter and hotter, especially if the Cats continue to stumble.
The problems on the court have been well-documented this season. No consistent third scorer behind Meeks and Patterson. Too many turnovers. No point guard play. Inconsistent defense. But tension in the locker room and a lack of cohesion are slowly making their way onto that list, and that could spell trouble.
The season isn't over yet, and there's still time to put everything behind them and make a run.
The Cats aren't dead yet.
But they're also not well.