Kentucky's stumble down the stretch has left the Wildcats in unfamiliar territory heading into the
Southeastern Conference tournament.
Rather than use the tournament they've won a record 43 times to
bolster their seeding in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection
committee, the Wildcats likely need to run the table in Tampa to
simply make the field of 65.
It's enough to send one of the nation's most passionate fan
bases into a frenzy. Message boards and sports pages across the
region are filled with angst over Kentucky's fate following a
four-game losing streak to end the regular season.
Don't count Billy Gillispie among the concerned.
The second-year coach has tried to stay upbeat even as his team
has imploded over the last month. Kentucky (19-13) has lost eight
of its last 11 games and hardly looks like the squad that appeared
to be the class of a so-so SEC in January.
"The tournament, I think, is a great situation," Gillispie
said Monday during the SEC coaches' teleconference.
Maybe because it's the only opportunity the Wildcats have left
to salvage their season.
Kentucky hasn't missed the NCAAs since 1991, when the Wildcats
were barred from NCAA competition due to recruiting violations tied
to the end of the Eddie Sutton era.
Gillispie understands his team needs to find a way to reel off a
few wins in Tampa, but he doesn't feel any added pressure to keep
Kentucky's 17-year NCAA streak alive.
Besides, he's hardly the only coach of a team whose NCAA chances
are very much up in the air. Outside of SEC champ LSU, there isn't
another program in the 12-team league that is assured of an NCAA
"(There's) a bunch of teams going into it that haven't had the
regular season they wanted," Gillispie said Monday. "It's a
situation where anytime you're playing in a tournament and it's
'win or go home' it's going to add to the pressure. I think that
there won't be any more pressure this year than there is every
Probably, but there is more at stake for a coach whose team has
struggled over the last five weeks. Kentucky's woes began with an
85-80 loss to Ole Miss on Jan. 27, a defeat that ended their
perfect 5-0 start to SEC play.
The Rebels exposed Kentucky's lack of size to dominate the
backboard and slowed down Kentucky stars Patrick Patterson and
Jodie Meeks enough to pull out the victory.
"They made a bunch of shots and they executed very well and
they had a hard time guarding their perimeter guys and they hit the
offensive boards and whipped us pretty well," Gillispie said.
Kentucky will get a chance at revenge on Thursday when the two
teams meet again in the opening round of the SEC. Playing on the
first day of the four-day tournament is a rarity for the Wildcats
and means they'll have to play four games in four days to reach the
Gillispie is concerned about his players taking the long view.
"You can't win the tournament on the first day of the
tournament," He said. "You have to try and play your first
opponent and try to beat that opponent."
Having Meeks break out of a mini-slump - by the junior's lofty
standards - would help. While he's averaging a healthy 20 points
over Kentucky's last six games, the shooting touch that made him
one of the hottest players in the country in January has cooled
off. Meeks is making just 37 percent of his shots over the last six
games, including just 26 percent of his 3-pointers.
Meeks went just 6-of-18 from the floor during a 60-53 loss to
Florida on Saturday, and Florida player Ray Shipman said after the
game that Meeks told him Gillispie ordered Meeks not to shoot
Gillispie laughed when asked about it, denying he asked his best
shooter to shut it down. The bigger problem, one that's plagued the
Wildcats all season, has been the ineffective efforts of Meeks'
teammates to help him out.
"It goes down to how much we're helping him," Gillispie said.
"Everybody's doing a great job of making it difficult for him to
get scores. I think he's going to have a big breakout game. we
definitely need it."