clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Reflections on recent defections from Kentucky

This morning (well, afternoon if you are reading this on the mainland) I came across this article by Kenny Colston of UK Wildcat Country.  Kenny observes that there have now been three transfers out of UK men's basketball this year and rumors of several others, and wonders about it:

But is Billy Gillispie that big of a transition? I guess so. At least Gillispie recruits well enough for the fanbase not to miss these guys. It's still interesting how many players are looking to get out of Lexington.

Now, knowing UK fans as I do, I know some readers out there are going to want to take umbrage with what Kenny wrote, but before you do, read on while I discuss this a bit more.

From observing Gillispie over this year, I have come to some conclusions about him, as most of us have.  Gillispie is not a "father figure" coach like Tubby Smith was.  My perception is that he runs his program in a way that is less about mentoring, encouragement and family, and more about requiring immediate acceptance of the responsibility of being on arguably the most storied college basketball team in the nation.  I am not picking on Smith here -- his approach worked.  We won lots of games and a national championship under Tubby Smith, and that is success by any definition.  But UK fans wanted a change and so did Smith, and both factors contributed to a new coach and a new system here at UK.

Gillispie is apparently an extremely demanding coach, and does not accept the excuses young men are wont to give about failure to live up to their responsibility.  He doesn't want to hear about their knee scrapes, bruises, strains and pains -- that is a problem for them to deal with on their time.  What he apparently demands is attention to detail and acceptance of the full measure of personal responsibility and accountability that must be the stock-in-trade of any team hoping to contend for the national championship.  He wants results, not excuses, and gives playing time to those who produce -- particularly during the tough practices when nobody is cheering.  Those with the discipline and toughness to check their ego and give their body and soul to basketball every day when they are on the floor, and take care of business in the classroom first when they aren't, are the players that he loves.

But lack toughness, or commitment, or slack in class, and Gillispie is not going to like you.  He is going to be very hard on you and spare no aspect of your personality.  He is going to mentor with the rod, harsh language and stern remediation.  He is going to use a lot of stick and a little carrot to get you in line just as a drill sergeant will in the military to deliver the discipline necessary for a team to function at a high level.  Then, he is going to demand even more, ever more.  For those who would reach the top have to be driven out of their comfort zone to get there.  Just as God drove Moses ever onward through the desert of Sinai, Gillispie drives his players through the desolation of mediocrity and selfishness.

So let's deal with the transfers.  Alex Legion was clearly not a fit for Gillispie.  Legion is a very smart young man, and probably thought he was smarter than Coach Gillispie.  That is always a recipe for transfer, and my feeling is that the "leave it all out there every day" approach just wasn't what Legion was looking for in a coach.  Bad fit, now fixed.

Derrick Jasper looks to me like the kind of player who has a bit of a sensitive side.  There is nothing wrong with this, but being sensitive around Gillispie is just going to be hard.  Gillispie wears more emotion on his sleeve than any of us would have imagined, but it seems clear that he leaves all that aside when it comes time to lace them up and play the game.  His practices are famously brutal, to the point Jerry Tipton apparently thinks that they were a significant contributor to injury this year.  But wherever you shake out on that question, it's clear that Gillispie needs players who will play through every ounce of pain that does not put them at risk for injury.  It seems to me that Jasper was only willing to do so much of that.

It also seems clear that Jasper has been wanting to move closer to home for a long time, and his injury and surgery recovery provided the perfect excuse.  I'm sure Gillispie tried to get him to stay, but I'm equally sure that sitting out next year at UK was not part of the equation.  Jasper was a great kid, but Gillispie is about winning championships, and that demands that players play.  So if Jasper wanted a year off to heal, UK just wasn't in the equation any longer.

Morikenyo Williams was just a different story.  Smith took a flyer on Williams when he recruited him, and Big Mike just didn't work out.  We have had no shortage of ponderous big guys at Kentucky, and Williams skill set was just not a good match for the kind of basketball Gillispie wants to play.  Hence, his desire to transfer, which has been known for several months now.  All that was missing was the destination, and now he is reunited with former UK assistant Scott Rigot at Duquesne.

So are the transfers a sign of problems?  Well, I recall many in the Big Blue Nation pointing to transfers during the Smith era as a clear indicator of a problem, so if we apply that standard, perhaps so.  But I don't think so.  I think you will see two to three transfers per year out of Gillispie's program, and if you will notice his continued intense recruiting even though his scholarships are almost all gone, you can see that he apparently expects to have to deal with transfers every year.  We see it from all the big-time programs, and UK is no exception.

So in sum, I don't think the transfers are a problem, and didn't when Smith was in charge.  In fact, I think they are actually a sign of a healthy program and a coach doing a good job.  If players are not a fit here, there is no reason why they should be forced to suffer through four years of a demanding coach and system, and it is certainly better for the team if they can offer a scholarship to a player who is hopefully a better fit. 

We wish all our recent transfers well, but I think a case can be made in every case that both UK and those who transfer will be better off in the end.