Losers of nine of the last 13 games. Exiled to the Elba of college basketball (a.k.a. the National Invitation Tournament). Oh so close to greatness?
Kentucky Coach Billy Gillispie took positive thinking to extraordinary lengths on Monday as he spoke of his team heading into the NIT first-round game against UNLV Tuesday night.
"We're not very far away from being a great team, a special team," Gillispie told reporters. "I wouldn't doubt that it'll happen in this tournament."
In seeing a bright light at the end of this season's dark tunnel, Gillispie noted how Kentucky played competitively. Twice the Cats took Southeastern Conference regular-season champion Louisiana State (a much more experienced team) deep into the second half. Twice UK beat Tennessee, the Eastern Division co-champ. The other co-champ, South Carolina, needed a last-second shot to win the first game against UK.
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"I didn't try to get our guys to change 100 percent (or) 40 percent," Gillispie said. "I think everybody needs to change five percent because we've been close."
Get a loose ball here. Grab a defensive rebound there.
"Those are the kind of things that win close games in the last five minutes," the UK coach said, "things you want to see for your team. That's the only way you can become a special team."
The NIT isn't the first place fans think to look for greatness. That's reserved for the the Big Dance, March Madness, the NCAA Tournament.
The NIT isn't even an afterthought. Ramon Harris acknowledged never considering the event until Kentucky's downward spiral at season's end made the NCAA Tournament an impossibility.
"None," he said. "You don't focus on, are we going to try to make it to the NIT. I don't think that's a thought anybody has on their mind."
None of the four players available for interviews suggested UK deserved an NCAA bid. But it was suggested that the NIT can serve to make the point that the Cats were worthy of consideration.
"We feel we're an NCAA-caliber team," Harris said. "We just didn't win the games ... we were supposed to."
Harris added that the NIT provided a chance "to say you didn't accept us to the NCAA. We're still a team that's a threat to any team we play."
Perhaps as a way to impress upon the players what their poor execution created, Gillispie had the Cats watch Selection Sunday as a group. That provided 65 reasons to ponder the school's first absence from the NCAA Tournament since 1991. UK hasn't played in the NIT since 1979.
Yet big man Patrick Patterson held out hope until the bitter end.
"After I saw Arizona (on the 65-team bracket), I was hoping a little bit," Patterson said. "I was scratching my head, (saying) how did they get in?
"Maybe there's a chance for us. I went all the way to the end. Then, OK, get ready for the NIT."
Gillispie, whose Texas A&M team played in the 2005 NIT, promised Kentucky will be inspired to play UNLV. He won't use the event to take a longer look than normal at younger players. "We'll play to win like we always have," he said.
Gillispie noted how Kentucky was "lucky to be playing anywhere." Perry Stevenson echoed the sentiment.
"We're just looking at it as another chance to play basketball," he said. "That's the reason we're here at Kentucky: to play basketball."
UNLV Coach Lon Kruger said the Runnin' Rebels are eager to play, too, especially against a storied program like Kentucky.
"Not being in Rupp (Arena) is a little disappointing, from the experience standpoint," Kruger said.
Kruger, who guided Florida to the 1994 Final Four, saw his team experiencing Kentucky basketball in full flower in Rupp Arena. But the high school state tournament has Rupp Arena booked this week, so the NIT game moves to Memorial Coliseum (capacity 7,500), the on-campus home to UK basketball from 1950 to 1976.
"I think it's one of the best buildings I've seen, and I've seen a lot of them," Gillispie said. "I think it's one of the most grand buildings ever built for college basketball."
UK players spoke of expecting an exciting atmosphere. Supporting that view is the sellout of tickets Monday morning.
"We're in the NIT," Stevenson said, "but it's still Kentucky basketball. (The fans) are going to show up in numbers. They'll still support us."