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The State of the Big Blue Nation

Eight months after Billy Gillispie, former coach of Texas A&M University was announced as the next coach of Kentucky, what is the state of the Big Blue Nation?

In the last two months, we have seen significant injuries, complaints about Gillispie's unrelenting criticism and pre-game workouts, and players leaving the program mid-season.  We have seen the Wildcats lose to a hyphenated university and get crushed at home by North Carolina, and the very next weekend, a brutal beating at the hands of border rival Indiana.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Faithful, the state of the Big Blue Nation is discord.

From the team to the fans, there seems to be no end to the unhappiness and dissatisfaction with what is happening to our once proud program.  Most of us fans expected bumps in the road and an adjustment period that is inevitable with regime change, but this?  Nobody expected this, or if so, they kept it to themselves.  Make no mistake, I didn't expect a seamless transition, but neither did I expect to see players with good basketball skills play this poorly.  Most of us expected to struggle a bit this year, but not to the extent that we have seen so far.  Watching this Kentucky team play is no fun at all right now.  In fact, at times while watching them this year I have been reminded of a visit to a Navy dentist who drilled out one of my cavities with no Novocaine.  Fun?  Not.

So why is this happening to us?  Perhaps we all had our Big Blue shades on just a little too long when we thought about how this team would be.  If you think about it, it is fairly instructive that we have a walk-on starting on our team over scholarship players.  That should be a sign to all that something is not well.  But we have also seen some strange coaching decisions from Gillispie so far this year.

Here is a case in point -- we have had players foul out of no less than three games so far this season, two players foul out in each of the last two.  One thing for sure, Gillispie sure doesn't protect his players from foul trouble.  At this point, I don't know Gillispie well enough to know if this is a bug or a feature, but there is more.  Gillispie has not played one second of zone defense this year.  Now, I love man to man defense, but virtually every college coach in America has a zone in his repertoire, except, apparently, Gillispie.  The armchair coach in me suggests that perhaps a zone would have been a good thing to throw at IU yesterday, at least for a few possessions, just to give them a different look.

The biggest reason we are losing right now comes down to one thing -- shooting the basketball.  39% shooting will lose you a lot of games, especially on the road.  The reason we shot so poorly is pretty easy to see -- we aren't getting the ball to our players in scoring position, and our spacing reminds me very much of our spacing last year -- poor.  That led to a very high number of challenged shots yesterday, and when that happens, shooting a poor percentage is almost inevitable.  Our ball movement is poor, and it is poor for a very simple reason -- we aren't committed to getting the ball to Patterson in the low post.  You have to be committed to that, and yesterday, we saw Indiana force us away from the spots we need to get to in order to make a clean pass to the post.  It's fundamental basketball.

The way you attack that is with a dribble drive to the spot or ball reversal, but we just aren't very good at either one of those.  Michael Porter is at a quickness disadvantage, so when he is on the wing like he was most of the day yesterday, he doesn't have the room he needs to maneuver or screen availability.  That makes it easy to deny the wing pass from him, or force him to pass the ball back to the middle.  If we had put him at the top, with Bradley and Crawford on the wings, we probably would have done better.

Another way to attack the wing denial is to play the high-low, which we did a bit of yesterday with some success.  The problem is, you need to have a confident big man out high, and although Stevenson is getting better, he still struggles with it a bit.  By the way, it was easy to miss, but Perry Stevenson had a really good game yesterday.  He was manhandled a bit down low by that huge, round fellow Thomas that Indiana has, but frankly, Thomas pushed and shoved even Patterson out of the way a lot.  But Stevenson managed ten points and six rebounds, made all his free throws, made a couple of nice passes to Patterson on the high-low, and generally played good basketball.

Kentucky must get more production out of Bradley and Crawford.  Crawford has been in a funk for two weeks, and Bradley, well, he blows hot and cold when it comes to shooting.  When he shot a free throw 12'9" instead of 13'9" and barely grazed the front of the rim, I knew he was likely in for a long day.  Unfortunately, without Alex Legion or Jodie Meeks, we can't afford for either Crawford or Bradley to have an off game.  We simply don't have anyone else who can score from the perimeter.

At the end of the day, the problem with Kentucky right now is ball movement, and knowing how to attack defenses in different situations.  Crawford and Bradley have just never been very good at figuring this out, and who really knows why?  But we need somebody who can think out there on the floor and get people in the right places.  That sort of leadership is currently what we lack, and while Patterson is clearly able to deliver the emotional leadership, somebody in the back court must direct the team.  So far, we just don't have that person available.

So I say to all my Big Blue brothers and sisters out there, don't lose your wits.  I don't know if this team will ever get there without more help, and that isn't going to be available for awhile.  It's easy to point fingers at the coach, and for sure, there are things there to criticize, but it's a bit too early to see if this is just a learning curve, personnel problems, or something more sinister and permanent.  Let's just try to keep our shirts on and fight through it with the team.  You know, we ask the team to fight through adversity all the time, I think it's about time some of us fans started fighting through the urge to rant and rave angrily and keep our outlook positive.  I personally believe we will get there, but we obviously aren't going to get there without some pain.  Let's just buck up and take it on -- this team is not one for the fair-weather fan.

Update [2007-12-10 8:24:23 by Truzenzuzex]:  John Clay has an article in the LHL today that captures my feelings even better than I did -- the Cats shouldn't be this bad.