The excitement that surrounded Billy Gillispie’s arrival as Kentucky’s basketball coach, when he took over for Tubby Smith in April, has been replaced with anxiety as the Wildcats have struggled to a 5-5 start.AP photo
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Three pictures on the cover of the Kentucky basketball media guide seem to capture the first 10 games of Billy Gillispie’s tenure at one of college basketball’s most demanding jobs.
In one, Gillispie is clapping his hands, staring intently into the distance. The two above it are of senior guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. Crawford has the ball in his hand, searching for an opening. Bradley crouches, mouth agape, eyes focused straight ahead.
Perhaps it’s telling that the coach and players are looking in different directions. The giddiness that surrounded Gillispie’s arrival, when he took over for Tubby Smith in April, has been replaced with anxiety as the Wildcats and their hard-spun coach struggle to get to know each other.
Kentucky (5-5) is off to its worst start since 2000-01 as injuries and off the court problems have frustrated the coach and left his team’s confidence shaken.
While many fans are quick to place the blame on his predecessor, nicknamed “Ten-Loss Tubby” during his decade leading the Wildcats, they didn’t expect Gillispie to be halfway to the 10-loss mark just 10 games into the season.
Though the Wildcats managed to snap a four-game losing streak — the school’s longest in 17 years — with a relatively easy win over Tennessee Tech last Saturday, Kentucky has hardly played with the crispness or intensity Gillispie promised.
“I think we just haven’t competed as hard as we can,” Gillispie said.
The evidence came early in a stunning 84-68 loss to Gardner-Webb on Nov. 7. Though some dismissed the performance as an anomaly, the last six weeks have seen more of the same.
Outside of freshman forward Patrick Patterson, Kentucky has been largely unimpressive in victory and looked overmatched against quality teams. The Wildcats never threatened No. 1 North Carolina and were blown out by then-No. 15 Indiana even though the Hoosiers played without star guard Eric Gordon.
While Gillispie has been quick to dismiss injuries as part of the problem, he never imagined he’d spend most of the first six weeks of the season without guards Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks.
Jasper has been slow to recover from offseason microfracture surgery on his knee, while Meeks missed six games with a stress fracture in his pelvis. Though Meeks returned in a loss to Houston, he had to sit out against Tennessee Tech due to a hip flexor.
The injuries have forced Gillispie to juggle his rotation, but they’re not the only reason he’s used nine different starting lineups in 10 games.
A stickler for good practice habits, Gillispie has emphasized that those who practice hard will get the first chance at playing, regardless of how they perform during the actual games.
It’s a lesson Crawford, a starter each of the last two seasons, has learned the hard way. Crawford has spent most of the early season in Gillispie’s doghouse, and both he and Bradley watched from the bench in the first half against Tennessee Tech after being late for a team function.
Gillispie’s substitution patterns have also been erratic, as he mixes and matches lineups looking for a group that works well together.
Highly touted freshman guard Alex Legion played well in bursts during the first four games, then abruptly transferred to Illinois after playing just a handful of minutes in the loss to North Carolina.
Gillispie has been tightlipped through much of it, rarely talking about the inner workings of the team. His players, however, have risen to his defense even as they face his wrath.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re the best player on the team to the last guy on the team, if you know he’s going to treat each and every player on the team fairly, it makes you feel better,” Bradley said. “You have to be consistent because he’s going to stay consistent. He’s going to be tough.”
Never one to sugarcoat things, Gillispie rarely dishes out platitudes even when the Wildcats play well. When asked about his team’s defense after it held Tennessee Tech to 26 percent shooting, Gillispie just shrugged his shoulders.
“Zero would be better,” he said, then pointed out a series of uncontested lay-ups the Wildcats allowed.
“What I want us to do is play the best basketball we can. If we make one mistake in a game, I’m going to try and correct that mistake,” he said. “We have to understand there’s not going to be a perfect game, but you have to strive for that. We’re definitely a long ways from being perfect.”
Right now, being competitive would be enough.
The Wildcats have just three nonconference games remaining, and their only real chance to get a quality win before Southeastern Conference play will be Jan. 5 against fellow underachiever Louisville. If they can’t beat the Cardinals and put together a solid season in the SEC, the school’s streak of 16 consecutive NCAA tournament bids could end.
It’s a doomsday scenario that isn’t lost on Gillispie. For all the lessons he’s trying to teach, Gillispie knows the Wildcats can’t get by in the SEC starting a patchwork lineup featuring walk-on Mark Coury at forward and struggling Michael Porter at guard as he used against Tennessee Tech.
“They play very well together, but that’s not the personnel you need,” Gillispie said. “We need our personnel back. If we do I think we’re going to improve very, very quickly.”