Epiphanies strike when you least expect, which is perhaps why they are called, "epiphanies," and not, "comprehension." Either way, I had an epiphany today, one that we all should have recognized a long time ago. But it's really hard to blame fans for a failure to see the truth, even when it is laid out right in front of them. Almost all fans run around with a bunch of built-in preconceptions that cloud their judgment -- things like tradition, expectations, and conclusions built on the sandy foundation of hope.
It's funny how years of fandom can cloud one's judgment. We think we know so much, because we have all seen so much over the years. The evidence of our eyes, the emotions of past glory, failure and perception of failure all conspire to rob us of a gimlet-eyed view of the object of our adulation and affection. When that object comes on hard times, blame must be assessed for the sake of "tradition" and "the program." The scare-quotes there aren't meant as a backhanded pejorative, but rather just to illustrate the ephemeral nature of the concepts.
So what was this epiphany I had? In a nutshell, it is this: We have been asking questions of the darkness all year -- "Why are we not doing X?" "Why isn't this team better?" "We have more than enough talent, how can we be losing so many games?" The answer is simple -- this team is refusing to carry out the instructions of the coaching staff, and has been all year long.
That answer is very cryptic in its simplicity, and need a lot of exposition. Even though it makes sense in its most simplistic form, it's much more complex and nuanced than the simple sentence above can justify. That will be the objective of these next few paragraphs.
Billy Gillispie has been very direct and very explicit about what is wrong with this team. The problem is, Kentucky fans have been too deaf to hear what he is telling us. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for November 14th, 2008. Gillispie said after that game:
They [VMI] played really hard and really well. I thought we would have played better and executed plays better than we did tonight. We knew those kind of things would be important in the game and we just didn't do them."
Now, what does that mean? It means exactly what it says -- the Wildcats did not execute the game plan. Why? Did they not know the plan? Did they not study film? What happened there? This was a warning for the future that nobody picked up on.
Gillispie has consistently complained about execution, but one of the best examples we have seen all year was the game Saturday at Florida. Florida zoned us for most of the game, and every UK fan knows the way you attack a zone defense -- you get the ball in the middle of the zone, forcing either outside players to collapse or inside players to help -- pick your poison. Most teams bring their outside players in. When that happens, your shooters go to the zone that the help defender just vacated for the open shot. If rotation comes, you drive the ball inside, forcing the zone to collapse and kick it out for a wide-open jumpshot. If help comes from inside, you dump it down for a post-up. Most teams chose option 1, and force you to make lower percentage shots. The zone is a percentage defense -- it wants for force you to take shots that you are more likely to miss.
Kentucky hardly ever got the ball into position to properly attack the zone. It is utterly inconceivable that any college coach did not explain in detail to his charges what to do when facing the zone, so we know that Gillispie had to tell them what to do. We have seen UK attack a zone successfully this way several times this season. And yet, for some reason, the 'Cats simply passed the ball around the perimeter. That is a failure to execute one of the simplest offenses in college basketball.
Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to the Las Vegas Invitational, December 1, 2008, the day after the tournament.
On if it was a hard decision to allow Liggins to play in the game against West Virginia…
"His teammates said they wanted him to play in the regular rotation to give us the best chance to win, so that's what we did. I think it shows a great deal of courage by him and about our team, and how much they care about each individual.”
This was a critical mistake by Gillispie, and I am confident that he knows it. Gillispie was put in a tough spot by Liggins here. Had he suspended or benched Liggins in front of his friends, family and former schoolmates in Las Vegas, he faced the possibility of another Alex Legion mid-season departure. The fans and the UK media would have gone nuts over that, and cast a pall over the whole season. So Gillispie made an executive decision -- treat Liggins like the Prodigal Son. That decision would come back to haunt him.
The Liggins decision was the beginning of the end of this team as far as being competitive was concerned. We couldn't see it then, and even months removed from the event. But like a slow growing tumor that gradually crowds out organs and makes them incapable of functioning, the decision not to punish DeAndre Liggins set the stage for what would ultimately become, for lack of a better word, a mutiny. Basketball teams must be run like a benevolent dictatorship, and insubordination must be dealt with firmly. Gillispie knows this, but he had competing interests here -- a cloud of negativism with a Liggins defection or the hope he could recover from what he had to know was a mistake later.
Turning now to the Louisville game, quoting Rick Pitino:
On starting Edgar Sosa ...
"We had a long talk. I said `Edgar, if I were you I would transfer now. I wouldn't wait because you need a year under another coach to learn his system. I really think you should. The fans aren't too happy with you. More importantly if you are not happy with yourself, you're not having fun.
I want you to compare this with Gillispie's comments allegedly "throwing his players under the bus." Pitino, remarkably, came out and savaged a player in front of the media, informing the press that he tried to get Sosa to transfer, but delivered it with such glib style that nobody noticed. Can you imagine what would happen if Gillispie said that about Liggins or Stewart right now? Can you say, "Double standard," boys and girls? When you are winning, nobody notices. When you are losing, even the most ordinary utterances become fodder for criticism.
Finally, the harbinger of the collapse that nobody seemed to notice:
On Devan Downey and trying to defend him …
“We had no answer and had nobody who wanted any part of him. He is a really good player and played great today. Their guys followed instructions the way they were suppose to and that is why they played tougher and smarter than us and that is why they won. [sic]
At this point, some of the players have stopped taking direction from Coach Gillispie. What Gillispie said was that the Gamecocks did what they were told to do, and UK didn't. That was clearly so then, and it's clearly so now. Many angry fans will tell you over and over again that Gillispie is a bad coach these days, but it's really simple to see that even the most clueless coach knows when his team is following instructions and when it is not.
Finally, we come to the Georgia game at Rupp Arena:
On Kentucky's mass substitutions…
“We weren't getting much production. It's entirely my fault. I'm having a hard time finding five guys that play hard, smart and together the whole time. We are trying a lot of different things but none of them seem to be working right now. Georgia played great. They made a lot of shots. We didn't do that. I guess we aren't mature enough to understand what we need to do.
In retrospect, this is a very telling quote. The team is not doing what they are instructed to do. Gillispie is giving them a lot of credit by speculating that it is a maturity problem, and that is most certainly part of it. But the "crux of the biscuit," as Frank Zappa would tell you, is that this team has ears, but does not hear. They simply will not do what they are asked, and at this point in the season, it's as much becaue of a fear of failure as it is willful disobedience.
Last night, Gillispie said he started the guys he did because he trusts them. He has said that before, but my mind never really grasped what that meant. He trusts them to do what he tells them, and he does not trust the other guys. What that means is that he is starting not the most talented team, but the only team that will obey his instructions. Our losses are coming from a combination of a lack of quality play from the bench (due to a failure to implement the coaching staff's game plan), and the necessity of starting guys who are talent-challenged or athletically inferior, because they will carry out his instructions. The reason the starters look so bad is the latter, not the former. When the bench players come in, the situation is reversed.
The A.J. Stewart debacle, which Gillispie decided to handle just like Liggins (another misjudgment, in my opinion), has now removed this team from reality. Wholesale changes will have to be made, and the unfortunate fact is that will once again place us behind the recruiting 8-ball. We may get lucky (Gillispie is certainly due for a little good luck) but the odds are against us.
It is also instructive to note that nobody has noticed the apparent mutiny going on down in Gainesville. Billy Donovan's team is clearly in a similar situation, although Donovan has handled it much better, partially enabled by the lower profile of Florida basketball (amazing to say about a team who won the national championship very recently in back-to-back years, and with less talent than he currently has on his team). But before you feel sorry for Gillsipe, remember that he made his bed on this one with his mishandling of media interviews combined with the somewhat unfair controversies he generated over the off-season last year. All that combined has made him much easier to dislike and paint as an ogre, which Kentucky fans are now in the business of enabling, it seems.
But even with all that said, Gillispie has accepted the blame 100% of the time, as he should. And before you get the impression that I am blaming the team and not him, I must tell you that Gillsipie created this problem back in December, and I have been very explicit about that. He is getting exactly the blame he deserves, but very often for the wrong reasons. His coaching hasn't failed this team, but his management of the personnel off the court clearly has. That has all led to a crisis of confidence, and even if this team suddenly decides to listen and do what the staff says, their confidence in themselves and each other may be too low for them to be successful this year.
In summary, the problems with this team have been right there in front of us for the entire season, and Gillispie has been telling us nothing but the truth. He cannot be explicit for any number of good reasons, not the least of which it would have sped up the ultimate failure of the team, and made him look even worse. Instead, he has cut his losses and decided to fight this battle in the interregnum between this year and next. Given the current state of affairs, that is probably wise.