As you can see, I haven't given up on writing the postmortem, I just didn't want to do so last night. It was just a bad end to a tough day for me, and with the 'Cats throwing in this clunker, I just wasn't thinking clearly enough to articulate anything worthy of being on this site. Even though my sleep was fitful at best last night, a few cups of coffee and a slow start to the morning have enabled me to collect my thoughts, and write something other than plattitudes and angry ad hominem.
I congratulated South Carolina last night but I want to do so again, primarily because I feel like I was such a sourpuss about it. They were absolutely what I wish Kentucky was -- a team that played with confidence and poise, able to handle and play through adversity and take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. That's the kind of team that deserves to win in the SEC, and I'm sure Darrin Horn is proud of how his charges have performed this year. He is right to be. Horn himself aught to be in any reasonable discussion for coach of the year in the SEC for what he has done. So again, I want to say, "Well done!" to the Gamecocks.
Turning, as we must, to the Wildcats, I am obviously disappointed in the outcome. I am also disappointed in the effort the team gave last night, and I am quite certain I am joined in that regard by most of the Big Blue Nation. Patrick Patterson and DeAndre Liggins were the only players out there last night who gave an effort worthy of the jersey they wore. I say that advisedly, because even though they gave a strong effort, they did not play well, just hard.
I know some of you may think that Landon Slone deserves a mention, but Slone was so overmatched that his effort was irrelevant. It would be like putting a random fan on the floor with a Kentucky jersey and asking him to guard Devan Downey. That fan may give more effort than anyone out there, but his impact on Downey would not be measurable by methods currently known to science. Slone's was measurable only in fouls.
I think it's time for us to face the fact that Coach Gillispie has largely failed this year. I use the term "failed" in the sense that it is clear to me that he has not gotten anywhere near the most out of this team for whatever reason. Part of it is surely his fault -- he has stubbornly refused to change his game plan regardless of the opponent, and that philosophy has not worked well. Now, before we get a bunch of coach bashing happening, let me continue. What I just said doesn't mean it can't work well, it just hasn't with this team. They have not been able to execute offensively with any consistency, and when mismatches are forced on the team by circumstances, this year's version of the 'Cats has universally responded poorly on both offense and defense.
We don't know why, but we do know this -- it has happened 100% of the time. When we have a bad matchup at the point guard, UK has lost nearly every game this season with the exception of a narrow win over Florida at home. Gillispie cannot fail to know that Porter will be beaten every time off the dribble and hounded into turnovers by superior point guards, but he either doesn't care or feels that he has no other option available that he can live with. We don't know what goes into his decision making, so I think we just have to point to the results and say that they are poor, and the coach just has to take the blame for them.
It seems that Kentucky is very tentative against teams where they know they have matchup problems, and that shows up everywhere. That's why the 'Cats lost so badly -- this UK team clearly had zero confidence it could beat South Carolina last night, and that assessment became a self-fulfilling prophecy, in spades. Michael Porter bringing the ball up against Devan Downey was a hopeless situation, something the Coach Gillispie could not fail to know. Yet there he was, doing it anyway. We all know what the definition of insanity is, and I think we have to admit that for 11 minutes at least, Coach Gillispie was insanity made flesh. Exactly what you would expect to happen did happen. Exactly.
Gillispie's strategy in every single game this year, regardless of opponent, has been the same -- get the ball to Patterson or Meeks first, and there is no plan B. That has worked some games, and some games it has failed, but he has been nothing if not consistent. Last night, despite being behind by 20+ points, UK did not shoot three point shots -- it threw the ball into the post every single possession. The team executed Gillispie's plan pretty well, but the plan failed utterly. I have no idea how many touches Patterson got, but he took 24 shots, his high for the year by a significant amount.
South Carolina was not even trying real hard to deny Patterson the ball, and incredibly, it worked. If Patterson had shot his normal 70%, the game would have been 14 points closer. Alas, for various reasons, he shot 41%, not quite a season low for games in which he took >=10 shots, but close. Another thing we never saw from Patterson was a pump fake or a kick-out. Everything was just take it straight to the hole, and as often as not, the shot came back out. I'll keep my own council on how that could have happened, but as in every game, you have to make adjustments.
Speaking of adjustments, many comments have been made about Gillispie's failure to adjust, and last night was a case study in just that. Defensively, you have to stay at home on South Carolina, because Downey is going to get into the lane. You have to trust whoever is guarding him to recover enough to use their greater height to affect his shot in the lane. That didn't happen. The defense collapsed on Downey every time he got into the lane. The results were as predictable as the tides -- kickouts to open three point shooters and dunks by open big people.
With the exception of Patterson and Liggins, Kentucky virtually gave up in the second half. That's frustrating to us fans, because we remember times when the 'Cats would lay it all on the line for 40 minutes. This team, as Gillispie has rightly pointed out, lacks toughness. Not physical toughness, but rather, mental toughness. When the chips get down, the team gets down and begins to mope. I don't know what you can do about that, but the saying is, "Attitude reflects leadership." I'm looking at you, coach. To be fair, though, there is only so much coaching can do. You have to have something to work with, and instilling mental toughness where none currently exists is a long-term prospect.
I keep hearing from Gillispie how well this team practices. All I can say about that is if they practice well and play poorly, something must be wrong with practice. You sometimes see players do that, but I have never heard of a team that practiced well and played poorly as many times as Kentucky has this year. That tells me that practice is somehow broken. The relevant saying here is, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." Apparently, we are either practicing imperfectly, or practicing the wrong things. There doesn't seem to be a third possibility.
Matt Jones made good point today when he suggested that he did not put the players in a position to succeed. He also criticized the game plan as ineffective, but the truth of the matter is that the game plan is the same every single time, and has been all year. It works against some teams (Tennessee) and fails against others (MSU, South Carolina). Gillispie apparently believes that if you do it hard enough, this game plan will work every time. During the off season (which could be coming sooner than most of us hope), he will have plenty of time to reflect on the validity of that judgment.
Ultimately, I believe Coach Gillispie has been unsuccessful with the team this year. That isn't meant as a damning comment -- it happens. For a very recent example, just look at Florida, a team that is unquestionably more talented but is struggling every bit as much as UK is, and with a two-time national championship coach. It's easy to blame the coach for everything, but coaches have bad years too, and the players still have to give it their all. I think we can safely say that last night at least, we had a lot of players who did not give their all. Gillispie did well last year, getting Coach of the Year honors for his effort. This year, he has done poorly. "Do the same thing, but harder," just hasn't worked. It may work with a more talented team, who knows? Hopefully, we'll find out next year.
As for this year, I have no more hopes except as it relates to the next game on the schedule. The post-season is meaningless to me at this point. I am taking each game as though it is the last, because all too soon, it will be. Hopefully, the answers will come in our outstanding recruiting class. If not ... well, I just don't care to ponder that. I have enough disappointment to deal with right now.