When Mitch Barnhart hired Billy Gillispie as Kentucky's new basketball coach, I was ecstatic. I had followed Gillispie's career since he became the head coach at UTEP in 2003 (I have paid particular attention to UTEP because of my respect and admiration for former Miner head coach Don Haskins). By 'followed" I mean that I kept up with UTEP's' wins and losses. Even in today's sports world of ubiquitous coverage and Internet provided information I knew very little about Gillispie's coaching style, or the particulars of his offensive and defensive tendencies. I did know that in short order he rejuvenated UTEP and later Texas A&M. To pull off what he did at UTEP is one thing, but to follow that success with another Penn & Teller sleight-of-hand performance raised his stock to a whole new level, at least in my mind.
Like many other UK fans, when Gillispie's name began being mentioned in UK"s search for a replacement for Tubby Smith, my interest in finding out more about the A&M coach increased significantly. What I discovered was not any different than any other fan: A dedicated coach, work-a-holic, solid recruiter, and he had already beaten U of L in Rupp Arena (this was a major plus).
But, what we didn't know about Gillispie could fill up the Ball Room at the Radisson.
What we have collectively discovered about Gillispie since his hiring is that he sticks to his basketball philosophies and beliefs as if his very life depends on them. That isn't really much different than many coaches, but some of Gillispie's beliefs are so extreme, and because UK is the most storied (read stoic) college basketball program in the country, a sense of living out-of-the-box is present. Because of that, his "new fangled ways" tend to be about as inconspicuous as a Spud Webb wind-mill slam. In other words, we (the fans) like things done a certain way, and when a coach deviates from our game-plan, we're taken out of our comfort zone, at least I am.
Allow me to expound:
Gillispie's refusal to play zone defense -- When discussing Gillispie, this is one of the most debated game-related topics among UK fans. Maybe not so much this year, but last year, with such a short-handed team, most fans wondered why Gillispie refused to play zone, if only to hide the deficiencies of the team. Plus, it can be an effective way to give the squad a rest from the rigors inherent in playing man-to-man defense. So why not play zone, Billy?
The answer we received was that Gillispie despised playing zone, and he wasn't going to play zone, period. Actually, on more than one occasion last year (late in the year), Gillispie played some sort of 2-3 zone for a couple of possessions, in a few different games. But it was only a token effort.
I have learned to live with his strict adherence to all things man-to-man, because the team started winning, and that's what I care about.
But there's more, such as ...
Gillispie's starting Mark Coury (and not playing Josh Harrellson) -- "Those who earn it, get it." I can dig it, but the thing on my mind last year was that I could go to practice every day and hustle, and follow the coach's directions To ... A ... Tee, but that doesn't qualify me to start for the University of Kentucky. Furthermore, that doesn't qualify me to play one single solitary minute for the University of Kentucky. No, what qualifies a player to put on the Kentucky jersey and play is a combination of talent and coach-ability. I, like Mark Coury, possess the latter, but not the former.
Josh Harrellson, on the other hand, has been playing some very good basketball. Since the beginning of the season he has impressed me more than any other newcomer. Mainly because, in his previous four games leading up to Appalachian State, Harrellson had played a total of 87 minutes (just more than two full games), and in those 87 minutes Harrellson scored 48 points, recorded 25 rebounds, four blocks, and three steals (he also became a three-point threat, going 3-6). Excellent production, by anyone's standards.
His reward: Two minutes of action against Appy State. Now, normally I don't question a player's floor time; Gillispie sees them every day, on average I see them for less than one hour week (actual playing time). But I'm left scratching my head at Gillispie's explanation of Harrellson's reduced playing time being that he had two sub-par practices leading up to the game.
That's a filament-line rope those guys are balancing on. I like the fact that Gillispie lives what he preaches, as long as what he preaches wins games.
And then there's this ...
Gillispie's sometimes unusual in-game strategy -- I cite three examples: 1.) Last year versus Gardner-Webb, a game UK famously lost: I was at that game, and I don't recall seeing Gillispie get up off the bench, other than for timeouts. This topic was widely discussed, more-so at A Sea of Blue than anywhere else. But, I still have no answer to why Gillispie seemed disinterested, except to theorize that he was making a point (painful as it may be) with his players, and feigning indifference.
2.) Last year on the road at Mississippi State: You remember that one; a 69-64 UK loss in which Jarvis Varnado recorded 10 blocks. MSU as a team had 15 blocks. "Why so many blocks?" one might ask. Because the offensive game-plan was to drive the lane and have your shot blocked. The result: Of UK's 40 two-point shots, 15 were blocked. That's 37.5%. It's nearly a year later, and I'm still perplexed.
3.) This year versus VMI: Gillispie made no adjustments to counter-attack the Keydet's game-plan, which was to wear-out the scoreboard operator by halftime. All night long he allowed a team with one proven outside shooting threat to swap threes with a team chock-full of Winchesters.
I have no choice but to believe that messages are being sent, and minds are being toyed with, which isn't that unusual in the coaching profession, but it usually isn't so overtly executed. Let's just say that I'm getting use to Gillispie's off-beat technique. And no...
... I'm not down on Gillispie
How can I be down on a guy who next year, potentially, has a team that includes: Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton, Jodie Meeks, DeAndre Liggins, Jon Hood, Perry Stevenson, Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller, Kevin Galloway, A.J. Stewart, and Matthew Pilgrim, among others. A mere two years after taking the job, Gillispie will have his first legitimate Final Four threat if all of those players are on next year's roster.
How can I be down on a guy who last year won 12 SEC games with a team worthy of only eight or so?
How can I be down on a guy who loves to coach (and win) as much as UK fans want Championship banners hoisted in Rupp?
No, I'm not condemning Gillispie, I'm just trying to come to grips with some of his ways, because I honestly feel that he will be the coach of UK's next National Championship team. I think he's that good. What I'm learning, though, is that the trip may be filled with complications, but hopefully that makes arriving at one's destination that much more sweet.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!