Sports

Gillispie feels the heat on a cold night in Rupp

Fact is, this team's a mess right now.

That's not harsh, that's truth. You start conference play with five straight wins, then take a three-game slide, it's not good. If you're Kentucky, and you lose two straight at home, there isn't going to be sweetness and light. The home fans boo as you go off the court for halftime. They scramble for the exits with three minutes remaining as if there had just been a bomb scare. They reach for their knives. They did all that Tuesday night.

After Kentucky lost to Mississippi State 66-57 at Rupp Arena, Billy Gillispie said he thought his team was still playing with the same energy it exhibited on its five-game winning streak — when we foolishly thought it was the best team in the league — but these eyes don't necessarily see the same team.

Last year's team progressed as the season progressed, especially the conference season. It got stronger. It gained confidence. It played smart, tough. It wore people down. This team looks worn down.

Of course, last year's team had a pair of senior guards. This team has a fractious freshman colt in DeAndre Liggins. It has a game veteran in Michael Porter. It has a juco transfer in Kevin Galloway who couldn't get the hook quicker if Simon Cowell were coaching. It has a talented wing in Darius Miller, still finding his way.

This team does have Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, two of the nation's better players. But, with apologies to Gillispie for what he told ESPN's Jeannine Edwards a week ago in that now-famous halftime interview, that Kentucky is not a one-man team, it has looked just that of late.

Mississippi State held Meeks to 15 points on one end. It made 14 three-pointers at the other. You figure it out.

Mississippi figured it out first. Rebels Coach Andy Kennedy set the blueprint. Contain Meeks. Contain Patterson. Let the rest roam. It worked in Oxford. It worked for Darrin Horn and South Carolina on Saturday. It worked for Rick Stansbury and Mississippi State.

"We just dared someone to step up to make the shot and beat us," State guard Phil Turner said.

Said Stansbury, "We found a way to make it work."

Gillispie hasn't found a way to make it work for his team. He keeps saying he wants the double-team. Be careful for what you wish. Meeks and Patterson were 12-for-27 from the floor. Their teammates were 9-for-32. They play with one eye looking toward the bench.

Monday night, doing the Louisville-Connecticut game up the road, Dick Vitale told UK fans to relax. Like that's going to happen. This time, who can blame them. It would be different if South Carolina and Mississippi State were clearly superior teams, but they're not.

Some outside stuff doesn't help the cause, either. Rightly or wrongly, Gillispie is perceived as being too aloof, too stubborn, at times a bit too sarcastic. The majority of fans didn't like the way he upbraided Edwards on national TV last week. It didn't speak well of the school. Saturday, the fans were quick to think Gillispie snubbed Lexington native Horn in the post-game handshake after the Cats lost to South Carolina, even if Horn said that wasn't true.

A tipping point has arrived, for this year anyway. Florida comes to town next Tuesday. Then comes road games at Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Once on the Top 25 bubble, the Cats now feel the NCAA bubble.

Billy Gillispie's not on the hot seat — let's not go anywhere near there. But his team is getting worse, not better. And the current Big Blue Nation temperature reading is as hot inside as the weather is cold outside.

Gillispie has said over and over that he wants to be at a place that cares passionately about basketball.

He's about to find just how deep that passion runs.

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