John Clay

New year presents new challenges for Cats

John Clay
John Clay

As Patrick Patterson shed his Afro, so was the hope his team would shed its early-season problems. "Superstitious," replied the sophomore, when asked for the reason behind the return to his old look. Two games. Two losses. Time for a change.

Saturday afternoon, Kentucky got its first victory of the season, beating Delaware State 71-42. No matter what the wailers might have expected, this will not be a winless UK basketball season.

But did Kentucky get better?

"I think we did," said still-starting point guard Michael Porter, "but it's hard to tell considering the style they were playing."

That would be Delaware State's style, as in deliberate. The Hornets were the opponents. To hear DSU Coach Greg Jackson, the visitors walked straight into a hornet's nest. With Kentucky 0-2, no opponent was going to walk into Rupp Arena and pull off a victory, which might have led you to wonder if Jackson had watched UK tape before he walked into Rupp Arena.

Here's what we (well, me) walked out of Rupp Arena realizing: If we thought the transition was over, we (well, me) were mistaken.

There is expected carryover from a coach's first year leading a program to its second. The coach knows more about the players. The players know more about the coach. There is the assumption that the two would be more closely aligned than this time a year ago, when it appeared Gillispie and his new team were not only not on the same page, but not in the same library. That would be different this year.

Turns out, we (well, me) were wrong to assume. As any coach will tell you — in fact, Gillispie has told us — every year is different. There are always new players. There are always new roles. There is (almost) always a transition period.

Saturday provided an example. Late in the second half, in came junior-college transfer Kevin Galloway, who was expected to be a factor in the point guard competition but had not been off the bench until Saturday when there was 7:32 left and the Cats were leading by 28 points (59-31).

Less than 90 seconds later, there was Galloway dribbling the ball out front, dribbling some more, dribbling some more, until finally an exasperated Gillispie called timeout. In came Porter. Out went Galloway. And play resumed.

There was no real timeout, not in the traditional sense. There was no huddle. Gillispie never talked to his team, much less Galloway. In fact, the coach never got up off the bench.

"He just didn't do what we asked him to do," said a raspy Gillispie afterward. (The coach, like everyone else it seems, has a cold.) "He's too good a player to not be getting minutes for our team, especially the way we've been playing. He needs to know what he's going to be doing when he gets in there, and he needs to execute it, just like all of us."

The episode was reminiscent of a year ago when, if players did not respond quickly enough from the bench when their name was called, they were instructed to sit back down; when players didn't see the floor for mysterious reasons; when Gillispie was all about making a statement about what he's all about.

The hope this year was that the Cats wouldn't have to go through that again. An unrealistic hope, it turns out. The hope now is that the transition period won't last quite as long as it did last year. And maybe it won't.

"I think we're really beginning to understand what we need to be learning," said Gillispie on Saturday.

Asked to expound, Gillispie basically said players can hear things, study things, but not until those things actually happen on the court can they learn from those things.

"Until they really suffer some failure," said the coach, "whether it's in a game, whether it's in a particular possession, those are experiences you don't forget, hopefully."

These Cats have started the season with a couple of failures. Now Patrick Patterson's Afro is gone. The losing streak is gone.

But the transition plows on.