A year ago, Christmas came a crashin' for Kentucky basketball.
Losses to Gardner-Webb, North Carolina, Indiana, UAB and Houston hung as lumps of coal in blue stockings, as an additional home-court flop to unheralded San Diego awaited before New Year's.
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The new coach, Billy Gillispie, and the old senior, Joe Crawford, seemed not on the same planet, much less the same page. Jodie Meeks was battling a balky hip. Derrick Jasper and his atomic knee brace had yet to make it on the floor. The stressed-out fan base had scratched the skin from its aching head over its 5-5 club.
Ah, but this year, Christmas comes in good cheer beneath the Big Blue tree. The Cats are 9-3. They've beaten teams they were supposed to beat the way they were supposed to beat them the past three outings. Jodie Meeks is on fire. Patrick Patterson is patrolling the paint. The offense is progressing. The defense is down and dirty.
This year, Big Blue Nation sits beside the open fire and wonders, just how good could these Cats turn out to be?
"The really special teams are the ones who can improve while winning," Gillispie said Monday after UK had trampled Tennessee State.
To the naked eye, this one appears to be passing that test. The pace is up. The turnovers are down. There is a flow to the offense now, one born of sugar-sharing.
Consider Kevin Galloway, the UK point guard, jerked back to the bench in November after a stint of over-dribbling. Now the junior-college transfer is executing no-look passes in the paint. Look at former punching bag Michael Porter's Monday night stat line: seven assists, one turnover, plenty of applause.
Gaze at stat whiz Ken Pomeroy's defensive numbers at kenpom.com, which show Kentucky's defense ranked 14th best in the nation.
"To me I love to watch a great defensive team when they're talking and communicating," Gillispie said Monday before quickly saying the Cats haven't earned his heart quite yet.
Yes, Grinch, the schedule of late has not been overly challenging. And, yes, Kentucky has lost to easily the two best teams it has played, North Carolina and Miami, and possibly three if you count the season-opening shocker to VMI. But just as Gardner-Webb seemed light years away by season's end, the same could be true this campaign.
After all, SEC basketball is as bad as housing starts. Jeff Sagarin's computer ranks the league an easy sixth in hoops among the six BCS conferences. As Fox Sports' Jeff Goodman points out, the conference is all of 9-15 against its BCS brethren. And then there's the laundry list of losses to the non-BCSers: Both Alabama and Auburn lost to Mercer (not Ron); Vandy lost by 19 at home to Illinois-Chicago-Blagojevich; Georgia lost not to Texas A&M, but Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Ole Miss lost by 33 at New Mexico before Andy Kennedy started counter-suing cab drivers and Chris Warren tore his ACL.
If Kentucky can go 12-4 against last season's SEC, what might these more comfortable Cats do this recessionary year?
Better still, the way Kentucky is playing right now, and the way Louisville is playing right now, the Cats are well capable of drop-kicking the Cards on Jan. 4, even in Freedom Hall, even if U of L is the deeper, more talented team.
I had resisted such thinking a couple of weeks ago, but am now more willing to entertain that idea, with one caveat. To me, turnovers remain a key. The Cats can't turn it over 23 times like they did against Indiana, or 31 against Kansas State, or 28 against North Carolina. Those kind of numbers get you beat.
But recent performances, winning performances, infer the type of improvement desired, especially compared to a Christmas season ago.
"I think," Jodie Meeks said Monday, "we're going in the right direction."