Sports

Billy G.'s big loss trumps Brooks'

One could have spent this entire past weekend sucking on lemons. You still wouldn't have as sour a taste in your mouth as University of Kentucky sports fans.

Not after the basketball Wildcats lost in Rupp Arena to VMI on Friday and the football Cats fell in a chilly Commonwealth Stadium to Vanderbilt.

If you're wondering after the sour weekend which major UK sports program merits the most fan frustration, your answer should be clear.

Yet another head-scratching home loss in Rupp to a low-major opponent gives Kentucky backers every right to be rankled with Billy Gillispie's basketball program.

In terms of energy on the recruiting trail, Billy G. has been exactly what UK basketball needed. Still, in his first 32 games in the seat that Adolph Rupp made great, Gillispie has presided over four of the worst losses in Kentucky's storied history.

To last season's embarrassing home-court defeats to Gardner-Webb and San Diego as well as the 41-point Music City Mauling at Vanderbilt, now add a Rupp loss to a VMI team picked seventh in the Big South Conference.

If you are among the UK fans obsessing over Kentucky's standing on the all-time college basketball wins list, the Wildcats advantage over their Tuesday night foe, North Carolina, is down to 15 victories.

Given the strength of the Tar Heels roster in 2008-09, it is possible UK could win 25 games and still lose almost all of its margin over Carolina on the all-time list this year.

Giving away what should have been home-court wins over Gardner-Webb, San Diego and VMI has not exactly enhanced Kentucky's hold on No. 1.

Three worrisome factors emerged from the VMI loss.

The most surprising is how lost Kentucky looked defensively against the frantic pace of the Keydets. After we heard all off-season about how long and athletic UK would be, the Cats spent 40 minutes allowing wide-open jump shots to VMI.

It is also a concern how earth-bound Patrick Patterson has appeared so far in the early season. The athletic explosion that Patterson showed a year ago has been nowhere in evidence so far.

One would like to think that is a function of lost confidence and/or lost conditioning early in a season in which Patterson is returning from ankle surgery. One hopes it is not a lingering physical effect from the stress fracture in his left ankle.

The major UK concern coming into this season was decision-making and ball-handling in the backcourt. Kentucky's top two lead guards, junior Michael Porter and heralded freshman DeAndre Liggins, combined for 12 turnovers (Liggins 7, Porter 5) against VMI's press.

Of all Kentucky's early issues, this is the one that looks to have the least obvious quick fix.

In Gillispie's first year, Kentucky appeared completely disjointed until conference play started. By the end of the year, the consensus view was that Billy G. had squeezed all there was to be gotten from the Kentucky roster.

Moral: One bad early loss does not a season ruin.

Still, in a program of UK's historic magnitude, it's time for the head-scratching home-court defeats to cease.

As for UK football, losing at home to Vandy is frustrating. So is sleepwalking out of the gate and falling behind 14-0 for the second straight game.

Kentucky's offense has been anemic most of the season. Its special teams are a thrill ride waiting to happen — and not in the good way. Even the defense, so staunch early in 2008, has faded.

But when this season started, reasonable observers agreed that the goal for Kentucky football in 2008 was six wins and a third straight year of bowl eligibility.

Rich Brooks & Co. have achieved that.

How they've gotten to the magic six has not been pretty. Of the teams UK has vanquished to become bowl eligible, not one presently has a winning record (22-40 combined).

But you have to keep sight of this: UK's is a football program that hadn't been bowl eligible three times in a row since the 1950s.

On July 1, if someone had asked you who the three main Kentucky offensive difference-makers would be in 2008, the logical answer would have been Dicky Lyons Jr., Derrick Locke and Curtis Pulley.

By the second half of the season, for various reasons, not one was on the field for UK.

Had you known that on July 1, you'd have said there was no way Kentucky football would get six wins.

All of which is why, after one of the more sour weekends in recent Wildcats sports history, the frustration level deserves to be higher with men's basketball than with football.

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