Saturday, December 29, 2007

Kentucky hits rock bottom


Maybe several years from now, Billy Gillespie will sit back, take a long gulp of his drink, let out a smile and — finally — a long chuckle when thinking about his first season as Kentucky men's basketball coach.

Maybe. But that's in the future.

For now, Gillespie couldn't force a smile if he tried.

His Wildcats hit rock bottom Saturday afternoon. Playing in front of their hometown fans, they fell to sub-.500 San Diego of the West Coast Conference 81-72. The loss dropped Kentucky to 5-6, with two of their L's coming against Gardner-Webb and San Diego.

Yes, the nation's most storied college basketball program is a mess. For now.

Consider some of the happenings late in Saturday's game.

There was senior leader Joe Crawford committing two asinine fouls 20-plus feet from the basket, which put San Diego at the free-throw line. And the Toreros made 32 of 36 from the line.

Crawford also killed the Wildcats by traveling in the final minutes.

Somehow the Wildcats allowed San Diego's Devin Ginty, a walk-on freshman, to score 18 points. Ginty had taken a total of eight shots in the previous 14 games.

With about two minutes remaining, Kentucky's Perry Stevenson made the cardinal sin for a player, saving the ball from under the Toreros' basket right into the hands of San Diego's diminutive point guard Brandon Johnson, who subsequently laid the ball in for a commanding 10-point lead.

Even Kentucky's sensational freshman, big man Patrick Patterson, made a bonehead play, throwing the ball right back to the Toreros after they turned it over in the final minute.

And that was it. The blue-clad fans raced toward the exits.

It should be noted that Saturday's loss by Kentucky wasn't just a result of poor play by the Wildcats. San Diego played out of its mind. Johnson took full advantage of the opportunity to play on national TV by showing off his stellar ballhandling and penetration skills, scoring a game-high 27 points and grabbing eight rebounds. And San Diego made nine of 16 3-pointers.

But a good, or even decent, Kentucky team wouldn't have allowed this to happen. Several of the Wildcats' previous five losses could be attributed, in part, to the absence of a pair of key cogs in Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper, but both played double-digit minutes on Saturday (although neither appeared at full-strength).

(Kentucky wasn't helped when confused freshman Alex Legion recently transferred to Illinois.)

Common sense says that Gillespie will get this nasty boar back in its cage by next season or the next. After all, if he could build Texas A&M — and its lack of basketball tradition — into a Sweet 16 team, he must have the tools to do likewise in Lexington, right?

But that doesn't mean Ashley Judd and the rest of Wildcat Nation shouldn't worry. Consider the immense parity that has taken over college basketball. Just a state away from Rupp Arenas, Bruce Pearl has transformed Tennessee into an annual national title contender. And now, three and a half hours away in Nashville, SEC foe Vanderbilt is undefeated and gaining confidence.

So there no longer are guarantees for Kentucky. Recruits have plenty of options to think about. Gillespie can't simply drop the Kentucky moniker and expect blue-chip high-schoolers to migrate to him and his lavish practice facility.

Oh, he'll get some players. How can a guy who purportedly manages just three hours of sleep a night not land players with similar work ethics?

But the competition, both in Kentucky's region and conference, is as good as ever. And if the Wildcats continue playing like they did Saturday, it will be a difficult journey back to the peak of college hoops supremacy.

Regardless of Gillespie's insomniac habits.


Sportsattitude said...

Tubby Smith is gonna get some of the blame for the players Billy G inherited, but I tend to think Gillespie has obviously grossly miscalculated the way to go about this season with this group of players...and perhaps they're not too thrilled with his not getting much sleep and taking it out on them. Each game, they seem to get worse. Most definitely, they're headed for the bottom tier of the SEC standings.

Tyler Hampton said...

First of all, I can't wait to have Legion on Illinois, but that's beside the point. I watched this game just before departing to
California for the Rose Bowl and I really enjoyed watching Kentucky get beat. I think that they came into this season thinking that they are an annual lock to get to the tournament, but now they are looking like they might actually have to light a fire under their a$$ and get to work. I also want to give all the credit in the world to San Diego. They played so well not only offensively, but defensively they created so many turnovers and scored so many times off of those turnovers it was unbelievable. Great game.