John Clay

UK headed for NIT and great unknown

John Clay
John Clay

TAMPA, Fla. — Thirty-three games down, and there's just one thing we know with any sort of certainty.

Without the sudden appearance of divine intervention, Kentucky's streak of 17 consecutive NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament appearances is kaput.

All other questions remain unanswered.

At this time, anyway.

Among them: After Friday's 67-58 loss to Louisiana State in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum, will the Cats be fired up for the also-ran derby known as the NIT?

And how do they run one of those NIT things anyway?

And after that, will Patrick Patterson return next season? Will Jodie Meeks? How about DeAndre Liggins? Or A.J. Stewart? Or Darius Miller? Or how about any number of players on Billy Gillispie's long roster?

And then, of course, there is the biggest and messiest question of all: What of Gillispie, now 38-26 after two seasons at the helm, he of the unsigned contract and stubborn self-reliance, his employment future presumably to be decided by one of those end-of-season, do-better meetings?

Will Billy G. return to fight another day in blue, or will he be encouraged to saddle up and ride back West from whence he came?

Certainly not the questions we thought we'd be pondering the day before Selection Sunday.

"I would have laughed," said Patrick Patterson, the 6-foot-9 sophomore, sitting inside the losing locker room, when asked how he would have reacted if someone had told him he would not be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

"It's Kentucky, and Kentucky basketball makes the tournament every year."

But this was a year of a different color. The Cats were 5-0 in the SEC and 16-4 overall on Jan. 24. They now sit 20-13 overall, 8-8 in the conference, a second-round knockout victim in the league tournament.

Meeks was a national player of the year candidate after scoring 54 points in a win at Tennessee on Jan. 13. He finished the season on tired wheels and an aching back from a heavy load.

LSU's Marcus Thornton captured SEC Player of the Year. While Thornton was leading the Tigers with 21 points on Friday, Meeks could never shake Garrett Temple's imposing shadow. Meeks' eight points were a season low.

"It was frustrating," the UK junior said.

Patterson's pride wouldn't allow him to call the season a disappointment. Instead, he said, "I know we didn't play up to our capabilities."

Himself included. So often Friday, as it has been so often this past month, Patterson played hard around the basket but couldn't finish around the basket. He got nine shots — "Easy shots," he said — and made four.

Nothing's easy for the head coach, however. LSU was and is the superior team, no doubt. But the mind wonders when the stat sheet shows Meeks with just three more shot attempts (9) than Michael Porter (6), when Perry Stevenson gets two rebounds in 33 minutes, when a team with two first-team All-SEC players won't be dancing with the big boys next week.

If that's all there was to it, then you hope the breaks bounce your way next year. But it's not. There is an obvious gap between Gillispie's narrow perception of the job (wins and players) and what UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart believes it to be (a successful and respected captain of a very famous ship). The off-the-court stuff counts, too, especially when the on-the-floor isn't going so well. And it's not, as evidenced by the fact that we must now all brush up on this thing we haven't experienced in 20 years — this peculiarity called the NIT.

"It's still basketball," said Patterson.

Just not the basketball we've come to expect.