I regret not being able to write this last night, but I had other matters to attend to. I want to thank everyone for doing such a good job of keeping the discussion civil in this difficult time.
First of all, a big, somewhat belated congratulations to the Florida Gators. Florida did not play a great game, but they played well enough to win. When you are at home facing a with a lot (at least, ostensibly) of motivation to win the game, it's easy to try too hard, and sometimes the Gators did. But they forced Kentucky into many turnovers and managed to exploit enough of them to get the W. Well done, Florida. Noble victory.
It doesn't take Yoda to intuit the fact that I am very fatigued, both mentally and emotionally, with writing losing postmortems. All sports bloggers have to do this, of course, but it gets much tougher when your team is far worse than expected in a season. But with that said, let's move along to the Wildcats.
First of all, I must say that the 'Cats played very hard. They played very poorly in the process, but I don't fault anyone's effort today, and if you are like me and try to search for positives in a dismal showing, that's something. Unfortunately, this team's effort today was largely directed, as it has been so often, in making plays that simply were not there to be made, with the predictable result of ridiculously difficult shots missing the mark and turnovers made all over the place.
The biggest problem with Kentucky today is that they had no 3-point shooting against the zone defense. One of the weaknesses of a zone is that it allows open 3-point shots with good ball movement. Kentucky's ball movement wasn't just poor, it was incomprehensible. Throwing the ball around the perimeter of the zone is exactly what the zone defense wants the offense to do. What you should do is get the ball into the high post, forcing the zone to react. It's as though that was against the rules today, because the 'Cats almost never tried to do that.
In addition, Meeks was again unable to get clean looks, and when he did, he missed the shot. A lot of that credit goes to Florida, particularly Walter Hodge and Nick Calathes, who split time guarding Jodie Meeks. Ray Shipman also did good work there.
Patrick Patterson shot 7-17, an incredibly inefficient outing that has lately become his trademark all too often. Patterson missed point-blank shot after point-blank shot, and even though he was under some pressure, it was nothing like what he faced last month in Columbia. I am at a loss to explain what looks like a sudden lack of confidence in his game.
Kevin Galloway, the hero of the last encounter with the Gators, had a very bad showing. He kept trying to make impossibly difficult passes, even when a simple pass was available. Four turnovers, three assists.
Michael Porter was his typical ineffective self, although he wasn't the turnover machine we have seen so often from him this year. That honor went to Darius Miller, who's stat line of 1 assist, 6 turnovers and one rebound in 15 minutes is surely represents the nadir of the young man's Wildcat career so far (and hopefully, forever). Porter did, however manage to allow Walter Hodge to torch him for 18 points on 7-12 shooting.
The only player to really play well was Ramon Harris, the much-maligned small forward who defended Calathes like a maniac, holding him to only 5 points. Harris scored 14 points on 6-8 shooting and had only two turnovers and five rebounds, four of them offensive. Jodie Meeks managed 15 points on 6-18 shooting, with three rebounds as well as turnovers. As far as Perry Stevenson is concerned, I see by the box score that he did play 26 minutes, although I can scarcely remember anything he actually did.
So much for the recap.
So where does this latest debacle leave us? Well, I think it is safe to say that absent an SEC tournament championship, Kentucky has no chance whatever to get an at large bid in the NCAA tournament. That hope technically died earlier this week when Georgia handled us in Rupp Arena, but the reality is that the season was murdered in Columbia, South Carolina back on February 25th. The Gamecocks, in my estimation, crushed the fragile psyche of of this team to fine powder, rolled it up and smoked it.
I know many people will want to take Gillispie before the firing squad, but the truth of the matter is that he is no longer in control of the fortunes of this team. As anyone who has ever led a group of men or women will tell you, once their confidence in the direction of the team fails, it is usually (although not always) unrecoverable in the near term. What it often takes is a quiet period for people to evaluate themselves and their priorities, digest and assimilate what happened that contributed to the disaster and come back with a plan to succeed after the pain and recriminations of the failures have subsided. Only in cases of extreme maturity and determination, as we saw last year from Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, can the rescue of a team be effected in-season once it's confidence has failed. Unfortunately, this team has no such maturity or determination.
What this means is that the post season for this group, absent something rather extraordinary, is going to be much like the last few weeks. I can never say never, but I don't expect Kentucky to do well in the SEC tournament and I do expect them to play in the NIT. They may win a game or two in that tournament, but ultimately, the weight of this season will doom them much as it has seven of the last ten games. A slow start is all it takes to bury this team, and every start these days is a slow start. These young men have neither the maturity nor the mental toughness to bail out all the water the USS Wildcats is taking on this year.
Coach Gillispie will suffer most of the recriminations, and that is right because that's what he is paid to do. My opinion is that Gillispie's "stay tough" style simply didn't work with this particular group of kids. I expect he also tried a kinder, gentler approach at times in the season hoping to get a response, but really, he was operating from a position of weakness. Gillispie is Gillispie, and this team needed a different type of approach which is apparently beyond his ken. We have seen this happen before with coaches at Kentucky and elsewhere.
Gillispie could not get this team to execute or understand his offensive schemes. Defensively, the Wildcats were fairly consistent and generally pretty good this year, but it was the inability to value the basketball or execute precision offense when it was needed that cost us most games. Yesterday, it was a return of the unwillingness (I can't really call it anything else, the proper method to attack zone defenses are well-known by anyone who closely follows college basketball) of the team to properly attack the zone and move the ball. It was as though flashing to the free throw line was so risky that nobody would attempt it, so Kentucky simply threw the ball around the perimeter fecklessly in hopes of getting it to Patterson.
I do not believe those who say Gillispie is over his head, at least when it comes to actual coaching. In the sense that he has done a very poor job with media and fan relations this year, yes, I think he is in over his head -- he has taken a huge reservoir of goodwill and drained it completely dry with almost nothing to show for it. He now finds himself actually embattled at Kentucky after only two years, a feat that I thought impossible without an actual losing season. Yet Gillispie has managed this with two potential NBA draft picks and several other top 50 players coming out of high school on the team.
I personally believed that Gillispie should get four years at the head job almost as a default. However, after this season he will be under tremendous pressure to perform next year, and that concerns me -- coaches under that much pressure can become unpredictable and can be a threat to the program's integrity. I trust that Barnhart and the compliance staff will work very closely with him under these circumstances. I think Coach Gillispie is a man of integrity who would never do anything wrong, but there is no way he has ever been under this much pressure in his life. Pressure this intense can break the will of even the best human being, and while it may seem unfair, it is simply a fact at Kentucky that must be dealt with. That unfortunate fact may (and probably is) a big part of the reason why Kentucky has had so much difficulty with coaching searches.
Unfortunately for those who want to see Gillispie fired immediately, doing so would magnify the pressure of this job to the point that I can't imagine any right-minded human being who would want it. I'm sure somebody would be willing to try, but if you think we could euthanize the Gillispie era today and hire the next Rick Pitino tomorrow, you are simply nuts. The psychology of the situation would be unprecedented in all of college basketball history, and we would most likely have to settle for a coach with Kentucky ties. I would point out that the only coaches with Kentucky ties of the stature that most fans want are Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan and Tubby Smith.
Of course, it is always possible we could go to the NBA and get lucky like we did with Pitino. NBA coaches are familiar with pressure that is at least somewhat similar to what a coach faces at Kentucky, and that is certainly a good thing. Most of them are fairly adept at handling the media, so that would also be a plus. But could we find any that would be a good fit and have the necessary experience to take over this program? I don't know.
In the final analysis, firing a coach who had committed no NCAA violations or other issues of moral turpitude after two winning seasons would be unprecedented, for a program of Kentucky's stature to take such an action would put our program at risk for years to come. But does that mean that we should just take this season in stride and look forward to next year, throw up our hands and say, "Oh, well, better luck next year?" Not in my book.
There are several actions that the Athletics Department should take after this season is finally dead and buried, something I expect to happen sooner rather than later. They are:
- Inform Gillispie that he has one month after the NCAA championship game to finalize and sign a contract with UK. Failure to do so will result in dismissal, and litigation over the MOU. Enough is enough.
- Require Gillsipie to provide a detailed explanation to the Athletics Director, either verbally or in writing, about what went right and what went wrong with this season. This analysis should include a detailed explanation of the failures that caused this season to go south, along with a detailed plan for corrective action addressing each of the failures. Once the coach and AD agree on all the points at issue and their corrective action, Gillispie and the AD should agree on what an acceptable outcome to next season will be complete with objectives and performance criteria.
As much as the fans would want to be part of this, it is unreasonable that they should be privy to or have a say in this agreement. We hired Barnhart to handle this. Let him do his job.
- The agreement should be specific as to what success and failure next season look like. For example, success could be defined as a winning percentage of 70% +0-5%, an SEC championship or co-championship, and an NCAA tournament bid of 8 or better. I really don't care what the agreement is, it could require an NCAA sweet 16 or better, whatever.
What would the consequences of failure to meet objectives be? A presumption of dismissal, I would expect, absent extraordinary mitigating circumstances. Coach Gillispie was hired to coach Kentucky into Kentucky-like performances, not performances that would satisfy Georgia or Ole Miss. He has now had two full years to deal with the issues that the program had before he came, and three of his recruiting classes will be in place by next fall. We should begin to see progress from the 2006-07 years, not a continuation or regression from them.
I have advocated four years for Gillispie, and I still feel that way if he can show substantial progress next year. If not, I'm not sure that Barnhart will be able to protect him for another year. Many people have compared the situation to Coach Brooks, but we all know that basketball and football are worlds apart in the minds of Kentucky fans. Barnhart could afford to go to bat for Brooks, but Gillispie has burned up a ton of goodwill that Brooks did not by still having an unsigned contract and various media faux pas along with an intractable attitude toward the game that has not yielded good results. Intractable, eccentric behavior are fine when you win, but poison when you don't. In the final analysis, I don't think Gillispie can survive another year with more than ten losses unless he has a deep run in the NCAA's. I'm not sure he could survive another first-round loss in the NCAA's, or another VMI or Gardener-Webb type loss.
In summary of this lenghty commentary, Kentucky's season is effectively over. Although an SEC Tournament championship or even an NIT championship might somewhat change the dynamic of this season, it wouldn't be by much. Opinion has largely calcified that this year was a failure, and primarily a failure of coaching. Not only that, but the Kentucky coach has managed to create an unfortunate impression of his time at Kentucky by some very questionable decisions in the media. The result of this is that after only 22 months on the job, Gillispie has completely exhausted the reservoir of good will that the Big Blue Nation had for him when he was hired. He is now viewed almost as negatively (and perhaps just as negatively) by the fan base as Tubby Smith was two years ago, and that is very bad news. Gillispie, in my judgment, cannot survive another year like this, no matter what chance I personally think he should have.