UK notebook

Tubby's top critic crazy for Calipari

Leader of anti-Smith campaign calls new hire 'a grand slam'

Herald-Leader Staff WriterApril 12, 2009 

Richard Cheeks, the adjunct professor who made waves by calling for then-Kentucky coach Tubby Smith to resign three years ago, is a happy fellow these days.

"How could any UK fan not be happy today?" he said last week.

Cheeks approved of the hiring of Billy Gillispie, remains puzzled by Gillispie's firing after two seasons and now thinks Kentucky basketball has a bright future.

"In my opinion, Gillispie is an upgrade from Tubby Smith," Cheeks said. "But this is who they should have hired two years ago. Calipari is a home run. It's a grand slam home run. ...

"He's been there. He's done it. He has instant name recognition. He has instant credibility in the basketball community with players and recruiting."

Cheeks took notice of former Calipari player Marcus Camby admitting to taking $28,000 from agents, of UMass being stripped of recognition for making the 1996 Final Four, of questions about player discipline.

"I have had some concerns, as any fan might," Cheeks said. "But I believe the NCAA would have pursued John Calipari if John Calipari was dirty. To say he's dirty or somewhat guilty is a stretch."

To review: Cheeks served as spokesman for a loosely configured group calling itself, somewhat redundantly, "Concerned Fans for UK Basketball." During the 2006-07 season, the group tried to place an advertisement in the UK student newspaper, The Kernel, calling for Smith to resign for the good of the program.

Smith resigned after the season and took the coaching job at Minnesota, a move he said reflected his wish to go where he was wanted. The Concerned Fans disbanded.

That Smith has led a startling turnaround in Minnesota basketball, punctuated by a bid to this year's NCAA Tournament, made little impression on Cheeks.

"I think that's all smoke and mirrors," he said.

When reminded that Minnesota beat Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, on a neutral floor early in the season, Cheeks said, "I was not impressed." Louisville's play throughout the season did not justify a No. 1 seed, he said.

"Tubby's a good coach, but he's not a great coach. He'll never ever be able to grasp the brass ring again.

"No player he ever coached and recruited ever played in the Final Four. And for Kentucky, that's not acceptable. That was the whole point."

With Smith's players advancing to the 2003 and 2005 region finals representing failure, the conversation shifted to Gillispie.

Cheeks noted his mixed emotions, which include empathy.

"I think he's a good coach, and I think he had the program headed in the right direction," Cheeks said. " ... It's sad. I feel sorry for the guy.

"If he was fired because of basketball performance issues, not winning enough, then I don't think he had enough time to really build his program. ... I think he got a raw deal."

The official reason cited by UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and school president Lee Todd — that Gillispie was a "bad fit" — is a vague concept for Cheeks to grasp.

"Bad fit doesn't really justify firing," he said. "It might justify a mutual parting of ways. I don't think bad fit necessarily justifies firing for cause."

UK fans, whom Barnhart and Todd cited as a crucial foundation for the basketball program, deserve a candid explanation for Gillispie's firing, Cheeks said.

Draft notice

UK fans will see the NBAdraft.net projections for the 2010 draft as intoxicating. Three of the first five picks could be linked to UK: No. 1 John Wall, No. 4 Xavier Henry and No. 5 DeMarcus Cousins. At No. 13, Patrick Patterson would be a fourth lottery pick.

The Web site projected Jodie Meeks as a second-round pick in 2010.

Another Web site, Draftexpress.com, also had Wall as the first player drafted in 2010. It had Cousins being taken with the 11th pick.

With NBA officials hooting at 2009 projections, the idea of a 2010 mock draft is ludicrous. Although, it makes for good conversation.

The point is, Kentucky is again Kentucky — in the conversation with the top players.

From the public comments, Wall remains open to many college options. Memphis was his leader when John Calipari was coach. That presumes prime positioning for Kentucky. Meanwhile, North Carolina, which could officially say good-bye to Ty Lawson at any time, looms as a presence.

Henry's father has said Kentucky and Kansas are the schools in contention.

Of course, Cousins and Patterson are already in the fold.

Memo of understanding

Upon becoming Alabama's new coach, Anthony Grant signed a Memorandum of Understanding.

Of course, UK and Billy Gillispie made such a document famous when they entered a preliminary agreement two years ago. The two sides could not agree on terms of a formal contract, which left Gillispie's final compensation a point of disagreement when he was fired this spring.

As with Gillispie's memo of understanding, the Grant- Alabama document does not spell out specifically the reasons the coach can be dismissed for cause (and thus not entitled to compensation).

The first paragraph of Grant's two-page memo of understanding said that "all terms are final and binding."

Those terms include the length of the contract (seven years) and annual base salary of $245,000. Grant also will receive a "talent fee" of $1,555,000 per year. That's money from endorsements, multi-media rights, radio/TV shows and other off-court sources.

Alabama also agreed to provide such perks as two cars, an annual expense account of $12,000 and a country club membership.

Bilal Batley

Along with assistants John Robic, Orlando Antigua and Rod Strickland, new coach John Calipari also will bring Bilal Batley to Kentucky.

Batley worked for Calipari at Memphis last season under the title Assistant Director of Basketball Operations/Manager.

A native of Houston, Batley was a manager for the team at the University of Oklahoma and a 2007 graduate. He followed Kelvin Sampson to Indiana, where he organized the program's recruiting information and served as a mentor to players, according to the 2008-09 Memphis media guide.

Batley also has worked for the John Lucas Pre-Draft Camp in Houston since 2001. His presence is believed to be helpful in the recruitment of DeMarcus Cousins and Nolan Dennis.

Gillispie apologizes

When he spoke with prospects he recruited for Kentucky, former coach Billy Gillispie apologized. Those players signed to be part of his effort to replenish the roster.

Then UK fired Gillispie this spring, leaving the players in basketball limbo.

"He apologized for everything," big man prospect Daniel Orton said. "He said he was really sorry. He wishes it didn't happen."

Jon Hood, the wing from Madisonville and Kentucky's Mr. Basketball, had a similar conversation with Gillispie.

"He just apologized for everything that was going on," Hood said in a separate interview. "He said it was really unfortunate to put us in this situation."

Orton and Hood acknowledged how Gillispie's firing put an emotional strain on their young lives.

"I was all stressed," said Orton, who also had his mother pass away over the winter.

Added Hood: "I didn't take that real well. I just didn't understand. I couldn't understand why."

Magic man

Because he seems on the verge of following DeMarcus Cousins as a prospect who committed to Memphis and then followed John Calipari to Kentucky, Nolan Dennis commanded attention at Saturday night's Derby Festival Basketball Classic.

So all eyes would be upon him.

But then Dennis, a soft-spoken and cooperative interview subject, said something that surely made him an even more compelling presence in Freedom Hall.

When asked on Thursday about his playing style, Dennis said his game could evoke thoughts of a player.

"Kind of like Magic," he said, meaning Magic Johnson. "A 6-9 player bringing the ball up the floor."

Orton update

Daniel Orton's father spoke with new Kentucky coach John Calipari late last week. The result: The two look forward to further discussion as Orton wavers on a commitment to play for UK.

Larry Orton described last week's conversation with Calipari as "Just nothing. He was just glad to have Daniel, that was it."

In talking with reporters on Thursday, Daniel Orton said he wanted to sit down with his family to talk about recruiting after playing in the Derby Festival game. He was considering Kansas and Kentucky.

When asked on Friday to estimate the odds of his son playing for UK, the elder Orton said, "I don't know. Right now, Kentucky is it. But I don't know till we sit down (and talk). There's a lot more talking we have to do with the coach."

Larry Orton said he'd want to know from Calipari "where Daniel stands.

"Really talk to him and get a good feel for him."

On Thursday, Daniel Orton said he'd weigh UK's front court, which added highly regarded DeMarcus Cousins earlier this week, as a factor. But Orton's father downplayed that.

"Wherever you go, that's going to happen," Larry Orton said. "You just have to sit down and talk and see where the coach's mind is."

Attaboy for Porter

UK fan Carolyn Broussard applauded Michael Porter's decision not to play next season. Porter is on schedule to graduate in May, plus his wife is expecting their first child in the summer.

"This shows he is a great person!" Broussard wrote in an e-mail. "He may not have been a point guard like UK fans wanted, but he did his best, and I am sure he will be blessed by making the decision he has made. Shows he has his priorities in order. I wish him the very best from a longtime UK fan."

Broussard was born in Providence, Ky., and now lives in Nashville.

"I have been a UK fan for all my life but especially when I moved back to Madisonville, Ky., after my husband finished his military duty in 1965," she wrote.

Encouraging words

Former UK All-American Kenny Walker appreciated the invitation to watch a 45-minute workout last week.

Perhaps even more, he liked the encouraging words he heard Calipari direct at the players during the workout.

Then Walker mused about what encouraging words might have meant under former coach Billy Gillispie, whose substitution patterns stretched the meaning of the word "pattern."

"That you wouldn't play in the next game," Walker said with a smile.

Happy birthday

To former UK guard Derrick Jasper. He turns 21 on Monday.

Any review of Billy Gillispie's two seasons as Kentucky coach would have to include a mention of Jasper.

If Gillispie had a do-over, he might want to let Jasper sit out the 2007-08 season. The player could use the time to completely recover from microfracture knee surgery the previous June. Plus, UK had senior guards in Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.

Then Kentucky would have had Jasper this past season, at least theoretically, when the Cats needed help at point guard.

Instead, UK got Jasper at less than 100 percent for a portion of one season, then he transferred.

Jasper could not be reached. But in a January interview with the Las Vegas Sun, he said, "I definitely wish I hadn't come back and played. But I'm glad I experienced that and played throughout the season with my teammates.

"It never really fully healed. I came back pretty soon at Kentucky. It usually takes like 18 months, so I think it probably got a little bit worse."

Jerry Tipton covers UK basketball for the Herald-Leader. This article contains his opinions and observations. Reach him at jtipton@herald-leader.com.

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