Cats out of NCAAs for first time in 18 years

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - This isn't the kind of history Billy
Gillispie wanted to make at Kentucky.
The Wildcats (20-13) failed to make the 65-team field for the
first time in 18 years on Sunday, the latest in a string of
setbacks suffered by the program in Gillispie's two years on the
Kentucky is just 38-26 since Gillispie took over for Tubby Smith
in April, 2007. The Wildcats didn't make it out of the first round
of the NCAAs last season and stumbled down the stretch this year to
snap the nation's third-longest consecutive NCAA tournament
appearance streak.
The Wildcats last missed the NCAAs in 1991 while it serving NCAA
sanctions for recruiting violations under former coach Eddie
This year's team had no such legal issues, instead imploding
over the season's final six weeks. Kentucky lost nine of its final
13 games, including an upset loss at home to woeful Georgia that
forced the Wildcats to win the SEC tournament to get a bid.
It never happened. Kentucky bowed out in the quarterfinals to
LSU, leaving Gillispie to admit that making the NCAAs was a
"Our team is not far away from being really, really, really
special," Gillispie said. "That's what I've always thought. I
thought we'd get over the hump."
It never happened. Instead the Wildcats' long, frustrating
season will continue in the National Invitational Tournament.
Kentucky hosts UNLV (21-10) in a first round game on Tuesday night,
the school's first appearance in the NIT since 1979.
Gillispie didn't waste any time getting the Wildcats ready. They
were practicing late Sunday night when the 32-team NIT field was
The game will be played at Memorial Coliseum, Kentucky's
longtime home before Rupp Arena opened. The team was bumped from
Rupp to make room for the Kentucky boys state high school
basketball tournament.
The Wildcats were dominant in Memorial's cramped quarters,
winning nearly 90 percent of their games there between 1950-1976,
an era that catapulted the Wildcats into the nation's elite.
Now college basketball's all-time winningest program returns to
Memorial simply hoping to salvage a little pride in a lost season.
Despite having two of the SEC's best players in Jodie Meeks and
Patrick Patterson, the Wildcats have struggled to develop any sense
of chemistry and continuity.
The late-season swoon has raised the ire of Kentucky's ardent
fan base, who has grown frustrated at Gillispie's sometimes
mystifying substitution patterns and his somewhat icy relationship
with the media.
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart and university president Lee
Todd have both said they will sit down with Gillispie following the
season, but there are already rumblings that Gillispie has worn out
his welcome.
Gillispie, however, doesn't appear worried.
"I'm not concerned about honeymoons, I'm concerned about trying
to get our team better," he said. "As we move forward, that's all
we'll do."
Making things even more painful for the fan base that dubs
itself Big Blue Nation is the success of a pair of former coaches,
Smith and Rick Pitino.
Smith led Minnesota into this year's NCAA tournament as a No. 10
seed while Pitino, now the coach at archrival Louisville, will
begin play as the tournament's top overall seed.
Smith, for one, said he's sorry to see Kentucky miss out on the
Big Dance.
"There are some great kids there," Smith said. "It's a great
program and I hate to see them miss out on it because that's why
they came to Kentucky - to participate in postseason play. But we
wish them the best, wherever they go."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)