Rivalry reversal: UK, IU in new roles

Cats get General as top dog, Hoosiers get doghouse

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 9, 2008 

  • Saturday

    Indiana at Kentucky

    When: 4 p.m. TV: CBS-27

As far as we know, Justin Timberlake has no plans to be in Rupp Arena Saturday.

However, the theme song for this year's renewal of the increasingly irrelevant basketball series known as Kentucky-Indiana should be What Goes Around .../... Comes Around.

Back in the 1970s and '80s — when the UK-IU rivalry crackled with white-hot intensity — the rivals (or at least their fan bases) had stark villain roles assigned to each other.

Indiana fans said the Kentucky program cheated like a band of traveling con men.

Kentucky fans said the Indiana program was under sway of an authoritarian coaching regime that choked the fun out of the game by practicing constant mind games on its players.

What goes around, comes around.

When UK-IU tips off Saturday, the Hoosiers will be on NCAA probation with a roster decimated by the fallout from a cheating scandal.

In Billy Gillispie, Kentucky has a coach whose motivational approach mirrors in some ways that which UK fans once loved to loathe in Robert Montgomery Knight.

Back in his day in Bloomington, The General was famous for using his starting lineup and playing rotation as tools to send messages to players.

I thought of that Saturday as I watched UK continue a season-long trend against good competition by falling behind No. 21 Miami 16-7 by the first television timeout.

After the robust beginning led to a Hurricanes victory in Rupp Arena, Gillispie lamented Kentucky's penchant for slow starts.

"I don't understand it," the UK coach said.

Well, now. A lot of people might surmise that if you are not starting your most talented players, you might be making your team vulnerable early in games against quality foes.

Yet I'm sure Billy G. has a reason — a point he's seeking to make to somebody, perhaps the mercurial freshman DeAndre Liggins — for continuing to ask Michael Porter to start games at a position, point guard, where he is clearly uncomfortable.

Knight and his famous mind games with players came to mind in Rupp Arena as Kentucky freshman Darius Miller struggled through the past weekend.

On Saturday against Miami, Miller started at small forward and, though he failed to make a field goal, had 10 rebounds and five assists to show for 34 minutes.

However, afterward, Gillispie was all but fuming over what he saw as Miller's lax defensive effort at the start of the game.

So in Sunday's tilt with Mississippi Valley State, Miller found himself on the bench as the game began. The ex-Mason County star barely left, logging only 11 minutes.

Meanwhile, Kevin Galloway, the junior college transfer who had all but been missing in action for most of the early season, heard his name called in the UK starting lineup.

Asked afterward what lesson he hoped Miller took from his weekend, Gillispie said, "I'm not trying to teach lessons."

He then offered one: "You have to play hard if you want to play," Gillispie said.

Of course, the early part of the last Kentucky basketball season was spent puzzling over Gillispie's seemingly random in-game player substitutions.

No one could figure out why he insisted on starting Mark Coury at center. The coach's tough motivational approach to UK seniors Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley was hotly debated from Pikeville to Paducah.

By the end of the year, Crawford and Bradley were playing the best basketball of their Kentucky careers. After a dreadful 6-7 non-conference record, Gillispie led an injury-ravaged UK roster to a 12-4 SEC record and into the NCAA Tournament.

The consensus was that the coach had ultimately gotten the most out of the roster he had.

There does seem to be a method behind the Billy G. mind games.

Then again, there are schools where a coach can use the early part of a season to prove points and establish things for later in the year even if that means losing some games that should be won.

Kentucky isn't one of those places.

Whether such an unorthodox approach can succeed over the long haul at a program like UK where every single coaching move is scrutinized and dissected relentlessly will prove an interesting case study.

In the meantime, what goes around, comes around.

On Saturday, when those cheaters from Indiana hit Rupp Arena, it will be the Kentucky bench where all eyes will watch the coach to see what, um, unusual move he might make next.

Maybe you really do become what you hate.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230, (800) 950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog. Read Mark Story's e-mail at Kentucky.com.

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