Sounding like a man defending his record, embattled Kentucky Coach Billy Gillispie cited inexperience as the primary reason his team failed to earn a spot in this year's NCAA Tournament. He noted the pride he felt for the players' efforts this season after Tuesday night's victory over UNLV in the National Invitation Tournament.
"They understand the reason we're in the situation we're in," he said. "And they want to rectify the situation, and they took the first step tonight. And I think it's going to bode well for not only tonight, but for the future."
UK hired Gillispie as coach in 2007, in part, to replenish the roster. On the day of Gillispie's introductory news conference, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart spoke of 800 text messages a month as a sign of the new coach's recruiting prowess.
Two years later, speculation is again swirling of an impending coaching change.
Besides winning the game, the manner in which Kentucky beat UNLV served as a good sign for the future, Gillispie seemed to suggest.
The Cats had lost several regular-season games in which the opponent overcame a second-half deficit. UNLV came close to duplicating the feat, whittling a 20-point UK lead to 60-57 with more than four minutes left.
During a 25-8 UNLV run, Kentucky wobbled severely. Jodie Meeks and Darius Miller picked up their dribbles at inconvenient spots on the court (ultimately, Meeks double-dribbled and Miller called timeout, the latter leaving the Cats with only one timeout remaining to help navigate the final four minutes).
Yet Kentucky came through by holding UNLV scoreless for almost four minutes. Meeks hit a clutch pull-up jumper, then made four of four free throws inside the final 97 seconds.
"We responded really well," Meeks said of the pressure situation. "It showed our team is maturing."
Maturity seemed on Gillispie's mind this week. Not wishing to sound like an excuse-maker, he never directly said the team's relative inexperience played a role in the program's failure to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.
But there are no seniors who regularly contribute on the court during games. Of the five juniors, Michael Porter was a career backup thrust into the point guard role, Ramon Harris has scored 280 points through three seasons, Meeks lost the bulk of last season to injuries, Kevin Galloway transferred here this season, and Perry Stevenson had scored double-digit points once in a nine-game stretch before getting 10 against UNLV.
"These guys are inexperienced guys ... very young," Gillispie said. "That's the only reason we didn't make it" to the NCAA Tournament.
"They have a chance to be great. They've worked as hard as any group in America on a daily basis. We didn't always compete every single possession like we needed to, but a lot of that happens with experience."
Gillispie saluted the players for the effort.
"I told them on numerous occasions, 'Don't ever let anyone make you feel bad about winning (now 21) games to this point or falling short of our goal,' " he said. "The season is not over. We're going to do our best. They've had a great attitude about it."
UK's next NIT game will be at Creighton on Monday
Kentucky's next game in the NIT will be played Monday, the tournament committee announced Wednesday.
Kentucky will face Creighton, the No. 1 seed that defeated Bowling Green 73-71 on Wednesday.
Kentucky will travel to Omaha, Neb., to face the Bluejays, who tied for first in the Missouri Valley Conference regular season.
The Cats will play at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
Upper level seats that were not sold during the regular season as Creighton season tickets are supposed to made available for purchase early Thursday morning via Ticketmaster (Ticketmaster outlets, Ticketmaster by phone at 402-422-1212 or online at www.ticketmaster.com). Seats that haven't been bought by Creighton season ticket holders by 3 p.m. Saturday will be made available at 5 p.m. Saturday via Ticketmaster.