Sports

Are Cats crashing or just skidding?

John Clay
John Clay

There's an unease in the air.

Florida is in town Tuesday night. Billy D. versus Billy G., Round III. Donovan versus Gillispie. This has been the rare weekend without a Kentucky basketball game. The gap has left more time to focus on the Gators. More time to focus on the Cats' problems. Therein lies the unease.

It took eight days for UK to fall from a rising 5-0 SEC team to a struggling 5-3. It took eight days to go from ranked to unranked. Once threatening to close, now the conference door has swung wide open. Bubble talk permeates the Bluegrass. That, and what to make of Billy G.

My blog (johnclay.bloginky.com) this past week posed a take-the-pulse poll question: How do you feel about the current state of UK basketball?

By comparison, Obama-McCain was a nail-biter.

A whopping 58 percent clicked on "very upset."

A notable 21 percent voted for "worried."

Earlier in the year, Sean Woods, the former UK "Unforgettable" and now the head coach at Mississippi Valley State, advised the following to have patience. Woods said Gillispie wasn't always easy to figure out. His ways are unique. But in the end, the desired results appeared. And that was the case last year.

But you'd have to be blind not to cringe along the way. The lack of adjustments. The puzzling substitution patterns. The coach's often brusque way. The fact that outside of Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks, few on the overstuffed roster appear to be reaching their potential. The tiring Gillispie explanation that anything and everything is all about "toughness," as if nothing else matters.

After Tuesday's loss to Mississippi State, Gillispie denied that his team played without energy. His is the minority view, however. The Cats looked dead-legged, beaten down. Joe B. Hall's teams exhibited similar symptoms during their infamous "January slumps." That could be the case here. One big difference: Hall's teams enjoyed a talent edge over the rest of the league. That's not the case now.

Gillispie arrived with the reputation of a master recruiter. Even that is up for debate. Fans always have one eye on the future. UK fans fear the worst-case scenario: Patterson and Meeks leaving early for the pros, leaving incoming center Daniel Orton forced to carry the load. What if the Cats miss the tournament this year? What would be the outlook for the next? Perilous times, indeed.

Then there's the puzzling fact that nearly two years into the job, Gillispie has yet to sign his formal contract. How is that allowed to happen? I put the contract subject to Mitch Barnhart on Wednesday. The UK athletics director said it was out of his hands. The school is more than satisfied with its end of the deal. The ball is in Gillispie's court.

In more ways than one. The guy can coach. He wouldn't be here if he couldn't. Texas A&M was a non-factor when he arrived in College Station. Three years later, the Aggies were in the Sweet 16.

But A&M treats basketball as a lark. Kentucky doesn't. That's why Gillispie left there in the first place. That, and for games like Tuesday.

Florida is always fun. Who's the league's best player, Meeks or the Gators' Nick Calathes? Billy D. versus Billy G. The Gators are good, but beatable. Ask Tennessee, which administered a 16-point head slap to Florida a week ago.

Must-wins are often overstated, but this one might actually qualify. After all, the Cats travel to Arkansas next Saturday. Two days later comes a date at Nashville's Memorial Gym with Vanderbilt. You might remember what happened there a year ago. Forty-one points separated the two teams.

Turned out, that game was a blip. That's what UK fans are wondering now about the current skid. A blip? Or bust? Tuesday may tell the tale.

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