Jodie Meeks sat in a chair, hands resting
on his knees. He had just scored 32 points in Kentucky's 102-58
rout of Tennessee State when a voice floated in from down the
"Michael Jordan, there go Michael Jordan!" the high-pitched
Meeks turned and caught teammate A.J. Stewart trying -
unsuccessfully - to duck out of sight after Monday's game. The
junior guard let out a little laugh and just shook his head,
enjoying the moment.
For Meeks, and his suddenly red-hot team, things are looking
Kentucky (9-3) has won nine of 10 after season-opening losses to
Virginia Military Institute and No. 1 North Carolina. It is playing
with the kind of confidence and fire not seen since Rick Pitino
stalked the sidelines a decade ago.
The Wildcats are averaging 81.3 points - the most since Pitino's
last team in 1996-97 - and have already scored at least 88 points
six times this year, a number it hit just seven times combined in
the four previous seasons.
It helps having a healthy roster - namely Meeks, who is scoring
24.8 points a game after missing most of his sophomore season with
a variety of maladies. There is also a renewed sense of belief in
each other and in the exacting ways of their perfectionist coach.
"Last year was just so hard not only with me being injured but
just the whole team being injured," Meeks said. "I think this
year, we have a better record and it's a better mood."
Is it ever.
These Wildcats hardly resemble the slightly dysfunctional,
injury-ravaged mess they were this time last winter.
Kentucky limped into Christmas with a 5-5 record a year ago, a
mark that included losses to Gardner-Webb, UAB and Houston and had
the program's demanding fan base wondering if first-year coach
Billy Gillispie was up to the job.
Kentucky improved steadily as Gillispie somehow coaxed 18 wins
and a 17th straight NCAA tournament berth out of a team that went
just seven deep and played the final three weeks without star
center Patrick Patterson.
It wasn't pretty, but it was enough to survive a tumultuous
season at the home of college basketball's all-time winningest
Gillispie promised better days and continued his overhaul by
bringing in 11 new players as the roster swelled to 20. Finding the
right pieces to put in the right places has led to a bumpy
transition, and when the Wildcats lost their home opener to VMI it
felt like Gardner-Webb all over again.
Except this time, rather than sulk through a battle of wills
with their coach as they did last year, the Wildcats simply went
back to work.
While Kentucky is averaging nearly 20 turnovers a game, there
seems to be a growing sense of cohesion as Gillispie tinkers with
The miscues have steadily declined since the Wildcats gave the
ball away 31 times in a 74-72 win over Kansas State in Las Vegas
last month. The offense has played with an energy it lacked for
long stretches a year ago.
"I think they're learning to play hard, play smart and play
together," said Gillispie, repeating the mantra that's at the core
of his coaching beliefs.
The evidence game during one flawlessly executed possession
against Tennessee State. The Wildcats had already reeled off the
game's first 13 points when guard Kevin Galloway dribbled along the
wing and then dropped the ball inside to Patterson.
Patterson took one dribble and waited for the double team, then
kicked out to Michael Porter at the point. Porter shoveled the ball
to Meeks, who passed up a contested 3-pointer and found Darius
Miller in the corner. Miller pump faked and drove the baseline
before hitting Galloway coming down the lane. Galloway collected
the ball, drew the defense and then hit an open Patterson for a
Six passes. Five players. Two easy points. One more sign that
Gillispie's wearying first season may finally be in the rearview
mirror for good.
It was the kind of play the players admit might not have
happened six weeks ago when the Wildcats looked like five guys
going in five directions.
"Sometimes you forget that you need to move to help your
teammates out," Porter said. "It just shows how unselfish we are
and how well we play together."
Particularly when they're playing fast. Gillispie has taken the
training wheels off his offense. His orders to his players are
He adds: "I think we're playing too slow to be honest with
If there's anything the Wildcats have learned under Gillispie,
it's that playing good enough to win is not always good enough to
please their coach.
"He wants perfection out there," Patterson said.
This, after all, is a coach who is only half-joking when he says
he'd like to shut out an opponent. Patterson said that goal is one
reason the Wildcats have come so far, so fast.
"I do keep that dream alive," he said. "I do see the light at
the end of t