Has a lack of imagination been largely responsible for Kentucky's recent woes?
I harken back to the days of Eddie Sutton, January 25th, 1987. UK's opponent was #18 Navy, who had on their team The Admiral, Daivd Robinson. Robinson was an amazing talent, and had lead Navy to many victories and of course, became a legend in the NBA. He was a dangerous player, and many wondered how we would stop him when he brought the Midshipmen into town. Kentucky was unranked at the time, and appeared to have no answer for Robinson.
So Eddie Sutton used his imagination.
Instead of trying to hold Robinson down, UK allowed him to go off for 45 points on 17-22 shooting, 11-12 from the foul line. Sounds very much like a recipe for disaster, right?
Wrong. Besides Robinson and Derek Turner, no other Navy player had more than 4 points. That's right, Navy had six players score, and only two of them had more than four points. In fact, only three of them had as many as four points, including Robinson and Turner. UK won handily, 80-69.
Sutton used his imagination. He reckoned that David Robinson, if opposed, could not score 75 or 80 points. Robinson was a very smart player and would not force shots when he didn't have great position. Oh, he got great position plenty, and UK could not match up to him. And even though he shot a remarkable percentage, UK largely dominated the game by stopping everyone else.
Enter Rick Pitino in his first year. Pitino knew that UK's weak leftovers could not beat many people playing a conventional style, but he knew that he had a few guys who could shoot the basketball. So instead of worrying about post position and rebounding, Pitino's team worried about making three point shots, and made enough that a UK team that had no business winning more than five or six games managed 14 wins that season. Pitino's teams never played exactly that way again.
Last year, Billy Gillispie discovered that the only way we could consistently win was to shorten the game and work for the very best shot possible. It was ugly basketball, by UK standards, but it had one redeeming virtue -- it worked. UK found its way into the NCAA tournament after one of the worst starts in Kentucky history.
Which brings us to now. I think that largely, the last three games have represented a failure of imagination on the part of the team and the coaching staff. Against Ole Miss, the team could not imagine a scenario in which struggling Ole Miss defeated then 5-0 UK led by Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, who were tearing teams up. Their lack of imagination cost them, as Ole Miss took Jodie Meeks completely out of the equation, and Patrick Patterson was not enough.
Then, South Carolina came into Rupp. Billy Gillispie had to know that the Gamecocks were going to take Meeks away, just like Ole Miss did. Did he make any changes? Nope. As you might expect, the result was exactly the same, if much closer.
Then came Mississippi State. By now, surely everyone knows what the game plan is defensively. Not only that, Ole Miss presented some serious mismatches offensively. Kentucky came out and played exactly the same kind of game as in the previous two. The result -- the same.
I think even a blind man could see this pattern by now. Every team in the SEC knows how to beat Kentucky if they didn't know before. The method is tried and true, and has succeeded 100% of the times it has been tried. Has Kentucky done anything different? Not to the extent that even my experienced eye can see it. It looks like we are playing the same way we did against Tennessee and Alabama and Vanderbilt.
The difference is, other teams are playing Kentucky differently, and have found a recipe that has yielded remarkable success. So if Billy Donovan does not come in and play exactly the same kind of defensive game, he is a fool -- and he is no fool. And if UK does not make an adjustment of some kind, something more or less radical, the result will almost certainly be the same.
What we have is a lack of imagination. It's time Gillispie dreamed up something new.