Allow me to preface this column by saying I’m normally not a fan of making quick judgments on a new coach or new player. Adjusting to change often takes time, and that’s typically forgotten in the world of sports. So 15 games into the Billy Gillispie era at UK, I don’t know that it’s completely fair to judge the man’s coaching competency. But I do know this…I wouldn’t want to be him right now, with his team at 7-8 heading into a tough stretch of SEC play against Florida and Tennessee.
Gillispie’s first year has, to say the least, gotten off to a rough start. There’s no shame in losing to North Carolina or Indiana this year – both are great basketball teams. But home losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego? That’s just simply not acceptable for a Kentucky team – ever. A blow-out loss to Louisville and hated coach Rick Pitino two weekends ago was just another demoralizing blow to a team and a coach that can’t seem to take a step forward without taking two backwards this year.
Some fans have pointed to the lack of talent on the UK roster as the reason for a sub-.500 record so far. Granted, this team is short on elite players, with only one guy (Patrick Patterson) likely to ever sport an NBA uniform. Seniors Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, inconsistent as the Kentucky weather, are just as likely to shoot the Cats back in a game as they are to shoot them out of it. Sophomore guards Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks are finally healthy, but counting on either one as a savior is foolish. And a thin bench is full of players who quite simply aren’t typical UK-level players.
But a lack of talent isn’t the only thing holding these Cats back. I was at the UK-UL bloodbath, and I think I may have been more disgusted at the players’ body language than the outcome. Emotions run high in this game every year, and there’s inevitably going to be ups and down during the course of the afternoon. But I saw more UK players hanging their heads or barking at teammates than I’d care to mention. Now there’s nothing wrong with getting after a teammate, but this seemed to be more of the finger-pointing variety than of the “hey – shake it off and we’ll get it back” mentality that true leaders embody.
Furthermore, I don’t recall Gillispie leaving his perch on the sidelines, where he sat crouched the majority of the game. Even as UK committed turnover after turnover, and the Rupp Arena groans grew louder and louder, Gillispie didn’t move. No pacing the sidelines, no yelling encouragement to the players, no getting in the referees ears, not even a loosening of his tie. I wondered if he even was acutely aware of how much this game means to the people in this state. Maybe it would have made no difference on the scoreboard, but give me a coach with passion and enthusiasm over a robot any day.
Instead, fans were left with another hard-to-swallow loss, while their coach continues to befuddle them with his decisions. At this point, it’s almost not even worth it to try to figure out the line-ups and substitution patterns. Right before Christmas, Michael Porter played 28 minutes against Tennessee Tech. One week later, he played seven against San Diego. Now he rarely even gets to take off his warm-ups.
Meanwhile, freshman forward A.J. Stewart, who averaged 15 minutes against UNC and Indiana, has been relegated to mop duty. Against Louisville, Ramon Harris, he of the 4.4 points per game, got the starting nod over Joe Crawford, who is putting up over 16 per game. In the last two games, Harris has played 63 minutes and scored just 6 points. Mark Coury, another starter, played 23 minutes combined against Louisville & Vanderbilt, while Jasper, another reserve, played 57. If you’re confused, you’re not the only one.
Now it’s not too late to turn this thing around. But there’s going to have to be some major changes if the Cats want to even entertain the idea of an NCAA berth. For a team that’s short on talent, they need to be able to compete harder and play smarter than everyone else. However, they often seem to be more concerned with glaring at the referees or just hanging their heads when things don’t go right.
After a recent game, a gentleman behind me made a reference to the score, which the Cats had cut to 64-51 on the strength of an 11-0 run.
“At least we’ve cut it to 13 so it won’t look as bad in the paper tomorrow,” he said. “Guess that’s the best we can hope for.”
I hope we can hope for more than that. Otherwise, they’re in for a long, long season that will leave the Big Blue nation feeling…well, blue.