LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Don't tell Billy Gillispie the
Southeastern Conference is down.
Sure, there's just one team ranked in the Top 25 heading into
conference play - No. 15 Tennessee, which lost at home in overtime
to unranked Gonzaga on Wednesday - but Gillispie refuses to believe
the SEC ready to crawl back into the shadows now that football
season is over.
"I think it should be a very exciting race and I don't buy into
it that the conference is down or anything like that like some
people are saying," Gillispie said.
Maybe, but for the first time in years there is no clearly
defined favorite, which might be a good thing for the Wildcats
(11-4), who host surprising Vanderbilt (11-3) on Saturday in the
SEC opener for both teams.
"It's a lot more jammed, but at the same time every game is
going to be tough, that's just how it is," said Kentucky guard
Jodie Meeks. "Our main focus is just one game right now.
Everything else we'll worry about later."
Vanderbilt offers plenty of cause for concern. The memory of a
41-point beatdown on the road to the Commodores last year - the
worst SEC lost in Kentucky's storied history - is still fresh.
"It was disgusting," said Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson.
"It was just a horrible, horrible performance."
One of the few in a stunning turnaround by the Wildcats, who
salvaged their season with a 12-4 conference mark after limping to
a 6-7 start in Gillispie's first year.
Kentucky is far from the disjointed, injury-ravaged mess it was
a year ago. All that's done is ramp up the pressure.
"I think we're playing a little more together now than we were
at this point last year," said guard Michael Porter. "Last year
at this time we really started to play together so we really have
to step up even more just to get to that point."
Getting to that point might push the Wildcats back into the SEC
title race, one they've watched from the sidelines the last three
Place part of the blame on the Commodores. Kentucky has
dominated Vanderbilt over the years, but not recently. The
Commodores have won five of the last six in the series, the only
defeat being a double-overtime thriller at Rupp Arena last year.
It was a win that jumpstarted Kentucky's season. Doing it again
would give the Wildcats some momentum heading into a showdown with
the Volunteers on Tuesday. But Gillispie said he's resisted the
urge to look too far down the road.
Given the way the Commodores are playing, that's probably a good
idea. Vanderbilt has won six straight behind the play of sophomore
center A.J. Ogilvy and guard Jermaine Beal and are built much like
the Wildcats, who rely heavily on the inside-out play of Meeks and
center Patrick Patterson.
The similarities don't stop there. The Commodores start two
freshmen and two sophomores. The Wildcats have five first-year
players in their rotation.
That inexperience - not a lack of talent - is why Vanderbilt
coach Kevin Stallings said the SEC isn't getting much respect these
"Our league has still continued to some level hold their own,
but not like it's been in past years obviously," Stallings said.
"I think it's because of lack of experience."
The real growing up starts on Saturday.
The Wildcats are hoping someone can step up and take some of the
scoring burden off Patterson and Meeks, who are combining for 44 of
Kentucky's 80 points a game.
Gillispie allows part of the problem may be that his role
players are too deferential to his two stars. He's sent more than
one player to the bench for passing up an open shot.
"We want guys to shoot it and not be afraid to miss or drive
it," Gillispie said. "We're just hesitating a little bit as far
as understanding when to shoot and when not to shoot."
Hesitating against the Commodores isn't a good idea. Vanderbilt
is second in the country in field goal defense, allowing opponents
to shoot just 35.6 percent from the field.
"They get out and really guard you, really try and take you out
of what you're good at," Gillispie said.
What the Wildcats have been good at over the years is winning
SEC titles. They've won 43 of them over the years, but none since
2005. It might not sound like a long time in most places, but
Kentucky is not most places.
"It seems like anybody can get first and anybody can get
last," Porter said. "This first game is big."