Sports

UK basketball notebook: Fans at tournament not happy but not giving up

Billy Gillispie could do a better job representing himself and Kentucky's basketball program. And speaking of image, it would look bad to fire any coach after only two years on the job.

That was the consensus of opinion among UK fans I spoke to outside the St. Pete Times Forum the day play began in the Southeastern Tournament.

The fans spoke of not liking what they've heard about Gillispie off the court or what they saw in his odd exchanges with ESPN sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards.

"If some of the things I've heard are true, I don't like it," fan Rod White of Paducah said. "I think it's the exact opposite of having Tubby (Smith) represent the program."

Gillispie questions whether his public persona should play an important role in evaluating his coaching. But White saw how the coach conducts himself as an important example to set for players.

When asked what she thought of how Gillispie represents the program, fan Willa House of London turned to a friend and said, "Do you want to answer that?"

A withering look of disapproval crossed the friend's face. The friend, who declined to give her name, finally said, "Very poorly."

Yet the fans also said that any coach needs more than two years to establish what he can do.

"If you get rid of a coach after two years, what's that tell the next coach?" fan Mark Hogge of Ashland said.

So, what did Hogge think it would say?

"It says you're not willing to give him a fair chance," he said. "A coach needs four years to get established, get guys you recruited to be seniors and have a chance to build a program."

James Harbison of Paducah saw Gillispie as a victim of unrealistic expectations.

"Kentucky fans are spoiled," he said. "We want victories no matter what. Nobody wants our coaching job because we're too spoiled."

In Harbison's view, winning creates a different perspective on the same set of circumstances. Win and you're a colorful eccentric. Lose and you're an oddball.

"If Gillispie were winning," Harbison said, "nobody would be talking about his antics."

'A monster'

When a coach's job security becomes an issue, his colleagues tend to rally behind the embattled coach.

That's what LSU Coach Trent Johnson did after his team eliminated Kentucky from the SEC Tournament. Bear in mind that Johnson coached against Gillispie when they were at Nevada and UTEP, respectively.

"It's interesting to me," Johnson said. "This basketball team is 20-12 (UK's record going into Friday's game). I mean, my goodness. And they're a good team."

When a reporter noted that Gillispie was on the metaphorical hot seat, Johnson said, "Why? Why? Why?"

He mentioned the coach-of-the-year awards on Gillispie's résumé (Big 12 in 2005, 2006 and 2007; SEC co-Coach of the Year in 2008).

"They're not 12-20," Johnson said of the Cats. "You all need to settle down. This thing has become a monster. That's my little shallow opinion."Contract talks

Much has been made of Billy Gillispie not signing a contract. Well, he has signed a contract.

The now famous two-page Memorandum of Understanding that he and UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart signed on April 6, 2007, serves as a contract. It spells out the basic terms of the deal: seven years, $2.3 million annual salary, potential bonuses of as much as $850,000.

Gillispie's Tulsa-based lawyer, Stuart Campbell, downplayed the significance of the subsequent failure to agree on a formal contract.

"Attorneys squabbling over legalese," he called it. "Other than that, it's not a big deal."

One point of contention is said to be the terms upon which UK can fire Gillispie and not pay him compensation of $1.5 million per year remaining on the deal with a limit of four years. UK wanted those conditions vague so as to have more leeway to avoid paying Gillispie. Campbell wanted those conditions specifically identified.

If UK fires Gillispie without cause (and losing too often or having a dustup with Jeannine Edwards is not cause, is it?), UK would owe him $6 million. Planning to meet with Gillispie after the season, Barnhart quite sensibly declined to discuss what kind of financial hit that represented.

Campbell suggested UK give Gillispie time to replenish the roster. "You're lucky to have Billy," he said. " ... He's a dedicated, hard-working guy."

Hood attends

Accompanied by his parents, UK recruit Jon Hood attended the SEC Tournament. His father found it hard to believe that Kentucky might fire Billy Gillispie as coach after two seasons.

Brian Hood, a former college player who knows basketball, called UK's struggles in Gillispie's first two seasons "growing pains" that come when a program is in flux. He expressed surprise that critics could be "so near-sighted" in wanting immediate results.

The speculation about Gillispie's firing put the Hoods in "a real awkward position," the recruit's father said. "And I don't want it to happen."

Jon Hood, a wing from Madisonville, remains excited about becoming a UK player. He has circled the date of June 6, when he plans to enroll at UK, Brian Hood said.

But a Gillispie firing would give the Hoods pause.

"I don't think it's in the realm of possibility," the recruit's father said. "If it were to happen, it's something you sit back and re-evaluate. He signed with the University of Kentucky. At the same time, the guy he plays for matters."

NIT wit

In its Saturday edition, The Tampa Tribune contemplated several potential NIT matchups involving Kentucky. The matchups included:

■ UK vs. Davidson, featuring two of the nation's top five scorers, Jodie Meeks of Kentucky and Stephen Curry of Davidson.

■ UK vs. Minnesota, featuring the current (Billy Gillispie) and former (Tubby Smith) UK coaches.

■ UK vs. Texas A&M, featuring Gillispie's current and former employers.

■ UK vs. Cincinnati, featuring the regional non-rivals.

■ UK vs. VMI, giving UK a chance to avenge an opening-game loss.

Hot teams

Auburn entered Saturday's SEC Tournament semifinals as one of the three hottest teams in America. The Tigers had won nine of their last 10 games.

The only teams winning at a faster clip were North Carolina (14 of the last 15) and Louisville (10 of the last 11) going into Saturday.

According to collegerpi.com, Auburn had improved its Ratings Percentage Index from No. 116 to No. 58 since Feb. 4.

That marked the largest improvement by a major-conference team. The next-best improvements were by Georgia (from No. 221 to 188) and Oregon State (from No. 162 to 143).

Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo had not had a winning league record in his first four seasons before breaking through at 10-6 in 2008-09.

Classic Kentucky

UK fans will lament the likely end to a string of 17 straight NCAA Tournament appearances (second-longest active streak and fourth longest ever).

But ESPN Classic offers a chance to re-live a past NCAA Tournament thriller on Tuesday. ESPN Classic will televise the 2005 region final between Kentucky and Michigan State on Tuesday beginning at 1 p.m. That's St. Patrick's Day. Coincidentally, Patrick Sparks hit the shot that extended the double-overtime game.

ESPN Classic will re-broadcast three other games that day: Baylor-Texas A&M 2008 (five overtimes) at 8 a.m., Texas-Oklahoma State 2007 (three overtimes) at 11 a.m. and Syracuse-Connecticut 2009 (six overtimes) at 3 p.m.

If you couldn't stay awake to watch the Syracuse-Connecticut six-overtime game on Thursday night, ESPN Classic will also replay its telecast twice on Sunday: beginning at 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.

'Biggest games?'

In its supplemental packet of information for reporters, UK includes three pages that list the program's "biggest games."

Of the 51 games listed, the last is UK's 67-40 victory over Central Arkansas on Nov. 6, 2007.

"The Billy Gillispie era opened" begins the one-paragraph explanation.

Way of the world

The days of a stable roster built over time are over.

Not counting current players, of the 41 recruits signed by Coach Billy Donovan for Florida, only 12 played for the Gators as seniors. Nine went early to the NBA.

The reader

Cecil Hurt of The Tuscaloosa News always brings a worldly view to the SEC Tournament. While covering Alabama, he carries a book to read during timeouts.

This year's selection was D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage, by Brenda Maddox.

Parity

Three notes on parity:

■ For a third straight year, Kentucky failed to advance to the SEC Tournament semifinals. Until the current streak, UK had never gone more than one year without being in the semifinals (not counting 1990 and 1991, when the Cats were not eligible to participate because of rule-breaking).

■ Tennessee became the first SEC program to finish ahead of Kentucky in four straight seasons.

■ Eight of the 12 SEC teams lost on Senior Day. The four teams that won their final home game were Florida, Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.

Go big booze

John Filleti, a student at the University of Tampa, tended bar outside the St. Pete Times Forum. If people share their troubles with the bartender, then Filleti got an earful from UK fans.

"They're having a couple more drinks than normal," he said.

More than once, the fans lamented that "this is not the usual Kentucky season," Filleti said. "But they're still happy to see their Kentucky team playing."

Then a question came to mind: How did Filleti, who is from Boston, know that UK fans are drinking more than normal?

"Everybody's ordering doubles," he said.

Happy birthday

To Andy Kennedy. The Mississippi coach turned 41 on Friday the 13th.

As the superstitious might expect, Kennedy did not get his birthday wish. "I hope to be in Tampa," he said on Wednesday. "I hope I'm not in Oxford."

Kentucky sent Kennedy home for his birthday by beating Ole Miss 71-58 in Thursday's first round of the SEC Tournament.

It's been a tumultuous season of greats and lows for Kennedy. Injuries sidelined his first three point guards, yet Ole Miss persevered so well as to be named one of 12 finalists for the V Foundation Comeback Award. At this early stage, the Rebels are considered a favorite to win the SEC Western Division next season.

Yet the season also saw Kennedy arrested in Cincinnati after a cab driver accused him of throwing a punch and shouting anti-Arabic insults.

In a countersuit, the coach's wife, Kimber, said the incident so traumatized her husband that it had affected the couple's sex life.

Kennedy was upbeat at the SEC Tournament. Before his team played Kentucky, he recalled growing up in Louisville, Miss., and developing into a player good enough to draw recruiting interest from UK.

"I was in the same class as Rex Chapman," Kennedy said. "King Rex committed early. One white jump shooter, that's about your limit."

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