Kentucky needs a win Saturday against LSU.
It's the biggest game of the young Billy Gillispie Era.
Why? Simple. Things are nuts around here. Fans are on the ledge. If not the ledge, then they're on the blogs, on the talk shows, on the message boards, on their Blackberrys to other distressed friends. It's all viral. Winning sends Kentucky basketball fans over the top with happiness. Losing sends Kentucky basketball fans into the art of self-expression.
This time, they have a right. Things are nuts around here. On the team, off the team, now sophomore A.J. Stewart is back on the team. Gillispie said so himself on Friday. As described by the UK coach, the episode sounded similar to the DeAndre Liggins situation in November in Las Vegas. Things were said. Mistakes were made. "A great deal of remorse," as Gillispie called it, was shown. The team welcomed the offending player back with open arms.
Here's what we know: This isn't the time for such a circus.
This is the time when a team should be gearing up. Time to polish your game. Time to hit the afterburners. Time to get everybody on the same page.
The disturbing part of Wednesday night's loss at South Carolina wasn't the loss. The disturbing part was that the Cats never showed up. They were woefully unprepared emotionally and physically. They brought nothing to the table. You felt how David Letterman must have when he said to the whacked-out Joaquin Phoenix, "Sorry you couldn't be here tonight."
Back home, it's the electronic feed that drives the faithful batty. TV image: His team all but sporting welt marks, Gillispie just crouched on the sidelines with that ever-present grin. Audio: Perry Stevenson didn't play "hard enough" in the first half to earn second-half minutes, yet apparently it took 15 first-half minutes to make that determination. The coach sat Jodie Meeks for 11 minutes in the second half, then bristled when asked about it by Tom Leach on the post-game show.
Are we back to "All My Cats"?
Louisiana State has discarded its "All My Tigers" days. Those departed Baton Rouge with John Brady. Now the Tigers are merely an experienced, hard-nosed team performing effectively for a no-nonsense coach. South Carolina was good, LSU is better. The Tigers beat the Gamecocks by 17 back in January. And Trent Johnson's club has improved since then.
Kentucky hasn't improved. After opening with five straight conference wins, it has lost five of its last eight. Two of the last three losses were by double digits. The NCAA bubble is thinning.
Gillispie says he doesn't worry about such things. He takes the games one at a time. He's not giving in to the roller coaster. But the Cats are 62nd in the latest RPI. Their record against teams in the RPI's top 100: 6-6. Their strength of schedule sits at 72. That's not the résumé you want to have if the committee is drawing straws that final Sunday.
Timing is everything. Forget the conference title, despite its importance. This is the time when you should be playing your best basketball, your most consistent basketball. You shouldn't be beating Tennessee at home by 19 one game, then losing at South Carolina by 18 the next. To have your team in such upheaval so close to March is the definition of bad timing.
The definition of good timing: A victory over LSU on Saturday.