From the Sidelines - Basketball Season Shouldn’t Be Like This

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Dan Ackroyd said it once as President Jimmy Carter, back in the “Saturday Night Live” early days:

“I feel your pain.”

And I do. How can I not?

E-mails, text messages, calls to “Sports Nightly” (thanks for those – keep ‘em coming), all reflective of the misery permeating throughout the Big Blue Nation. Basketball season shouldn’t be like this.

And for 17 days, it wasn’t. From the day Kentucky knocked off Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference opener, though the victory at Alabama, UK was sailing undefeated through league play, albeit negotiating choppy waters.

The boat might have capsized in Tuscaloosa, had Alabama been better able to take advantage of Wildcat turnovers. Billy Gillispie warned, after the game, that if his players keep giving the ball away, they WILL taste defeat. And he was right – three days later.

That’s when the Cats lost at Mississippi and began a three-game spiral that cost them the hammerlock grip on first place in the Eastern Division. Home court losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State ensued, closely followed by a team-wide bloodletting in the locker room.

The air presumably cleared, the Cats edged Florida and eventually climbed back into a tie for first place. That dissolved in a blowout loss at USC. Kentucky fans have been in full throat ever since.

And they have a right to be.

They have a right to expect more from a team that has shown it’s capable of doing more. What keeps the message boards, water coolers and my phone bank busy are the questions, Why? Who’s to blame? Is there hope?

Answers: Many reasons. Lots of people. Yes.

This team has been dysfunctional all season long, it seems, well before the shouting match after the Mississippi State loss. Deandre Liggins’ refusal to play during one of the games in Las Vegas was one of the first clues. A.J. Stewart’s 36-hour departure prior to the LSU game was another. Gillispie’s cryptic responses about playing time and lineups added fuel to the speculation.

Part of the discussion here is talent. Kentucky fans seem divided on the subject of whether or not there’s enough of it on the UK roster. And when this thread begins, it ensares the previous coach.

Clearly, Tubby Smith’s recruiting was lax during the end of his stay in Lexington. But it did include the likes of Jodie Meeks, poised to become Kentucky’s next All-American; Derrick Jasper, who, had he been healthy, likely would be at UK still, providing the point guard services it so desperately needs; and Patrick Patterson, who signed with Gillispie in spite of Smith’s departure.

But it also included Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris and Michael Porter. Stevenson looked like a good get, given his height and skills. No one could have predicted the vanishing acts we’ve witnessed all season, especially after he filled in so capably for the injured Patterson last year.

Harris and Porter looked to be complementary players, not the kind who would be pressed into service as starters for 30-plus minutes – particularly Porter as a point guard. He was brought here to shoot.

And yet, giving both Smith and Gillispie credit for recruiting Patterson, this year’s starting lineup basically has been four-and-a-half players recruited by Smith. Odd, since Gillispie has made his bones for years not only as an X’s-and-O’s junkie, but a dogged recruiter.

And now that Jasper is gone, as well as Alex Legion, the Cats are like an old number 2 pencil – no point. Liggins hasn’t grown into the job, Porter can’t handle pressure from quicker SEC guards and Kevin Galloway, the junior college transfer with just two seasons of eligibility, can’t seem to work his way into more minutes.

Is there enough talent otherwise? It says here, yes.

When you have two potential All-Americans in the lineup, complementary players will be just fine, thank you. But one of them MUST be a man capable if distributing the ball. A healthy Jasper on this squad easily makes UK a Top 15 team, if not better. Not only would he have reduced the number of turnovers, he would have increased Kentucky’s rebounding – which has been woeful at times this year. No, he wasn’t a great scorer, but he wouldn’t have needed to be. Last year, at times, Jasper dominated games without taking a shot.

But yes, there is hope. Not one but two big men, so coveted by breathless recruiting enthusiasts, will be available next season. Signee Daniel Orton reportedly is recovering well from knee surgery. If he’s on schedule, he should help – IF he can figure out a way to earn minutes.

Transfer Matt Pilgrim will be well-school in the ways of Billy Clyde by next fall – but the word on him is he’s not the first player to fall into lock-step with his coach. And he will lose in a clash of wills with this, or any other, coach.

Gillispie said it the day he was hired (more than once) and has repeated it every opportunity he’s had: You can’t win without great players. And he realizes it’s up to him to bring them here. And sooner than later, he’ll HAVE to play the guys he’s signed.

Question is, will he be here long enough? Mitch Barnhart already has answered the question about the immediate future by saying the process will take time. Keep in mind, this is the man who realized, four years ago, that sometimes the best decision is the one you don’t make. He refused to fire Rich Brooks. That’s turned out pretty well.

But Brooks’ madness was a method a bit easier to decipher. Fans like to coach along. That’s what paying the price of admission gets you. It’s been money misspent much of the time this season.

Whether you blame the coach or the players, this much we know: You need both. It takes supremely-talented athletes given the right opportunities to be successful to win in college basketball – now, more than ever.

Will Kentucky ever be “Kentucky” again? It could happen and likely will, under this coach or another. But it won’t happen as frequently as it used to. Other schools have realized the money and commitment it takes to be Kentucky. And they’re following suit.

Players realize they can play on TV, wear Nike swag and make it to the NBA by signing with someplace other than a traditional basketball power – and likely get more minutes because there’s less competition on the roster. Better arenas are sprouting across the country, and so are practice facilities. The gap between the UKs, UCLAs, Dukes and North Carolinas has narrowed considerably.

That’s why accurate recruiting is vital. And it’s the absolute future of this program.

Changing coaches now would be bad business. National media would crucify UK for “running off” a second coach in three years, one respected throughout college hoops, if not in his own backyard. You’d better believe, opposing recruiters would help prospects understand that about Kentucky.

Some think filling the roster with less-talented but hungrier players is the way to go. I can’t agree. When I hear that, I think of two things, one of them an axiom from thoroughbred racing.

You can’t outrun your pedigree. If you’re a sprinter, you may do wonderful things for the first six furlongs. But at the top of the stretch, bloodlines win out.

I also flash on something Rick Pitino said when he first got to Kentucky. He told the media that because of his style of play, none of his teams to that point ever had won a conference tournament. The grind of three or four games in as many days was just too taxing, given the hockey-shift way he pushed and rotated his players.

After one of his UK teams had won the SEC tournament and was taking aim at another, I reminded him of what he told us, and I asked him why that was different now. His answer was almost predictable:

“We have better players.”

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)

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