Kentucky will likely miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since the probation era unless they pull off a Georgia-like like run (2008 SEC Tournament Champions) this weekend in Tampa. Coming into the SEC tournament with a 19-12 record, Kentucky holds a fourth seed in the east and will face one of the teams that defeated them earlier this year, Ole Miss.
Obviously this situation doesn’t sit well with the Wildcat faithful. It doesn’t sit well with Gillispie either. Finishing 8-8 in the SEC after finishing 12-4 last season is a major letdown. Even with all-conference performances from Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, the Wildcats are likely bound for the NIT.
Make no mistake, Kentucky is in a rebuilding stage in its history. But even in the rebuilding phase, the Wildcats actually have enough parts to win this SEC. An SEC that will struggle to get four teams into the NCAA should be winnable for Gillispie’s roster, which includes stars like Patterson and Meeks.
Finishing .500 wouldn’t be a problem if Kentucky didn’t have better than .500 talent. Based on Kentucky standards, the Wildcats aren’t as deep as they are traditionally. But there are enough talented parts to win any game that they have been a part of in the SEC.
There have been several questions surrounding the program this year. Why hasn’t DeAndre Liggins developed as expected? Why did Kevin Galloway not play more early in the season with the soft schedule? Why doesn’t Josh Harrellson play more minutes? Why do Ramon Harris and Michael Porter play so many minutes? Why doesn’t this team play any zone defense?
Only coach Gillispie can answer those questions. And with Gillispie being the head coach and seeing practice every day, then he knows better than most anybody else. Gillispie knows how to coach a basketball team. He proved that down the stretch last season. He showed what he was capable of doing at Texas A&M and UTEP prior to that.
His success at those previous stops made him one of the top young coaches in America before bringing his show to Lexington in the spring of 2007. He earned a lot of points by landing Patterson at the 11th hour and also bringing in a top flight talent in Alex Legion (who later transferred). Most Wildcat fans anticipated what appeared to be a marriage made in basketball Heaven. The basketball state of Kentucky had finally found it’s match in the basketball obsessed Gillispie.
But a funny thing happened along the way in this relationship. Kentucky began losing games that fans perceived that they shouldn’t have lost. Grumbles and groans in the stands of Rupp began to grow. With Kentucky still having an opportunity to win the SEC, the Wildcats finished the season on a four game losing streak, including a Senior Day loss in Rupp to a struggling Georgia team.
More and more people have begun to question whether Gillispie is suited for the job. Former Wildcats Kenny Walker and Mike Casey have been vocal about their displeasure. Many fans agree and wonder if the Wildcats and Gillispie wouldn’t be better off parting ways. AD Mitch Barnhart has publicly given Gillispie his vote of confidence and his vote, along with President Lee Todd, counts most.
Others believe that he deserves the time to build his program. He’s still playing mostly with Tubby Smith’s recruits and has shown that he is a hard worker on the recruiting trail. Players like Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins, Daniel Orton and Jon Hood are all top notch talents that Gillispie has signed and can be big parts of a successful future in Lexington. Add in the early commitment of 2010 forward Dominique Ferguson shows that Gillispie will put forth the effort to bring in talented players.
Still, his future is in doubt. Both of this year’s stars, Meeks and Patterson, have NBA aspirations and if both of them decide to make the jump, the 2009 - 10 roster would have no proven post scorers, no proven perimeter scorers and very little chance at a NCAA tournament berth.
The question of whether two years is enough time to evaluate his performance. Under ideal circumstances, the answer would be no. But the team has under-performed badly this year and the lack of willingness to adapt to the personnel and the opponent’s strengths has been a nemesis of Gillispie all season. With that in mind, the tough questions have to be asked.
A lot can change in a year, players get better, coaches learn, and adjustments are made. Whether Gillispie decides to adjust his methods could determine the direction of the program for the foreseeable future.
This is a crucial time in Kentucky basketball history. We could be seeing what is the beginning of the end of a dynasty that has been in place for decades. We could also be seeing the darkness before the light of day. Is Gillispie comfortable being in the position of leading the Cats during this time and possibly more importantly, are his bosses comfortable with him leading the Cats during this time?