This is one of the most uneasy times I can remember in Kentucky basketball. As we watch the NCAA tournament that didn't include Kentucky for the first time since probation, and see the SEC out of the tournament by the first weekend, I can't escape the feeling that this has been the most disappointing basketball season in many years. Of course, Kentucky has not seen the second weekend of the tournament since 2005 -- that is a four-year absence for those of you who are counting. A long time. I have a lot of company in this lament, apparently.
LSU lost to the Tarheels yesterday, probably bemoaning a cruel committee decision to give them an 8 seed, arguably the worst seed in the tournament other than the 16. Western Kentucky took Gonzaga to the wire, and were deprived of an opportunity to put the game into overtime by a poor officiating job at the end of the game. Everywhere you look, Kentucky connections, whether it be conference mates or local schools are finding themselves watching instead of participating -- except, of course, for Louisville, who looks very good to be around for next weekend.
I confess, though, the NIT so far has provided some balm for my personal disappointment with the season, although that may well end on Monday as UK faces a tough Creighton team at their place. Kentucky demonstrated what could have been some growth as a team against UNLV, but whether or not we can repeat that performance on the road is at best an open question.
There have been some comparisons lately between Billy Gillispie and John Pelphrey, the somewhat embattled Arkansas coach. The two situations are not really directly analogous, but both schools have basketball programs that have currently fallen pretty far from their traditional levels. Unlike Mitch Barnhart, Arkansas Athletics Director Jeff Long has declined to let Pelphrey twist in the wind any longer, stating that Pelphrey is the basketball coach and ending speculation that Pelphrey might be released after only two seasons. Good for John, AD Long, and the Razorbacks. Long seems to have a clear-eyed view of the current state of Arkansas basketball. I hope the same can be said of Mitch Barnhart, but I confess, I have my doubts.
Jerry Tipton recycles the pro/con arguments today in the Herald-Leader. There is nothing really new that hasn't been discussed at length here on A Sea of Blue, so I'm not really going to address them except for one -- the argument that several transfers from the program since Gillispie took the reigns would empower rival recruiters. I suppose it's possible, but I am pretty sure that some success would do wonders for that problem, if it even exists, just like the rest of them. In the end, when you look at all the cons, virtually all of them would vanish like the ephemeral gripes they are with a couple of good, quality seasons and some decent NCAA tournament performances.
Everybody but me has reported on the so-called "high level meeting" that allegedly took place yesterday. Some say Gillispie was there. Some say not. I say, "Who the hell cares?" Of course there are going to be such meetings under the circumstances. That, in and of itself, means absolutely nothing, and contrary to what you are reading, it does not mean some kind of announcement is imminent. One could come at any time, of course, but news of "meetings," especially ones in which nobody apparently knows who all the participants were, is not really news.
What is alarming to me (and not because of what it may or may not mean for Gillispie) is Mitch Barnhart's office apparently failing to return a phone call from Daniel Orton's father. If true, I find that alarmingly insensitive. These are families who are directly affected by any decision that Barnhart makes, and I think the least he could do is the courtesy of a return call, even if he can't tell them anything meaningful.
Jon Hood's father has an interesting take on this whole subject:
"a couple of statements by a couple of people could end all of this, if there going to bring him back a simple statement would end all of this speculation.....recruiting days, if you know anything about recruiting, recruiting days are more precious than gold, you get a limited number, them being allowed to recruit right now to me says something, if they were going to fire somebody, why would they be letting them use up the new staffs recruiting days.....cause i know what we are going to do, we are going to take a step back, re-assess and re-evaluate cause even though u sign with a school ur still intrusting your child" [sic]
The fact that Gillispie and his staff are still out recruiting has been at the root of the arguments I have heard that indicate he will be back next year, and that does make some sense. But the fact that Barnhart has apparently given his staff no real direction on this (which is mostly responsible for the wild diversity of rumors) indicates he and Todd are playing this very, very close to the vest. Too close and too long, some might say.
Larry Vaught interviewed former UK player Derrick Hord (who was from my home town of Bristol, Tennessee, before I moved to Kentucky), and Derrick points to point guard play as well as "consistency, confidence and leadership" as the elements that have been lacking in this year's team, and says he thinks the team has "regressed." I think he is pretty much right on all counts, and his comments bring the count of former UK players weighing in on the state of Kentucky basketball to the highest I can ever remember, for good or ill. Maybe we started a trend here at A Sea of Blue with Ken's interview of Mike Casey.
After all is said and done, there is no way that these are the kinds of conversations Kentucky fans wanted to be having at this point in the season, but it seems like after only one year of respite, we are right back where we were two years ago. Despite the hopes of the Big Blue Nation in 2007, the Long Night for Kentucky basketball has not yet ended, and another coaching change could extend the darkness for years. It seems pretty clear to me that Daniel Orton, at least, would be unlikely to remain at UK if there is a coaching change, although I believe our chances are better of retaining Jon Hood and GJ Vilarino. 2010 recruits are also highly doubtful, in my opinion, but who really knows? Not I.
I do know this -- I am way past ready for all this speculation to end for this year.