Sunday March 8th, 2009

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Gillispie couldn't find the correct word. "What do you say when it's a lot of different things put together?" the Kentucky coach asked no one in particular Saturday as he dug into the guts of the Wildcats' 60-53 loss to Florida.

"Collaborative," one helpful scribe volunteered.

"Whatever," Gillispie said, and then he smiled the smile of coach who has no other option but to shake his head and chuckle at his team's fate.

Barring a miracle run through next week's SEC Tournament, Kentucky --19-12, 8-8 in the SEC and loser of four in a row and eight of its last 11 -- almost certainly will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, when the Wildcats were banned by the NCAA because of a program-altering scandal. That would snap the nation's third-longest streak of consecutive appearances. The Wildcats missed the 1989 tourney, too, but that entire season was played under the cloud of the investigation. The last time a scandal-free Kentucky team missed the Big Dance, the floor had a disco ball overhead. Of course, in 1979, the tourney only had a 40-team field.

If there is any justice in this world, this Kentucky team will face Minnesota in the NIT. That way, Kentucky faithful will come face-to-face with Tubby Smith, the man who, after a national title and 10 consecutive NCAA tourney appearances, left Lexington for the more relaxed atmosphere of Minneapolis. To a vocal segment of the Big Blue faithful, Smith only won the 1998 national title because he had Rick Pitino's players, and his three other trips to the Elite Eight simply weren't good enough.

The program has earned that high standard. Kentucky has earned a Division I-best 49 NCAA Tournament berths -- 50 if you count the 1988 tourney that was vacated because of the scandal. The program has won 1,985 games, the most in NCAA history.

Gillispie was supposed to carry on that tradition, to bring the Wildcats back to the Final Four that eluded Smith after he began playing with his own recruits. Instead, Gillispie's most notable contributions to this point have been home losses to Gardner-Webb (last season) and VMI (this season), two chivalry-free halftime interviews with ESPN's Jeanine Edwards and a Senior Night loss Wednesday in a must-win this week against a Georgia team that had lost its other seven SEC road games by an average of 18 points. Oh, wait, there is one more thing. Gillispie did accept a commitment for the recruiting class of 2012 from a player who hadn't even picked a high school when he committed to the Wildcats.

Don't expect Kentucky's administration to overreact and fire Gillispie. That's a move an SEC football power might pull, but Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart told the Lexington Herald-Leader earlier this week that "It's going to take time" for Gillispie to remake the team to his liking. In this instance, the Wildcats probably should hold Smith somewhat accountable. He recruited most of the players on this team. Still, Gillispie will have to right this ship, or he might never see any of his younger recruits in blue. Gillispie is paid handsomely to develop the players he inherited from Smith, and he could not whip them into a cohesive enough unit to win 10 conference games in one of the worst years for SEC basketball in recent memory. Guard Jodie Meeks is the league's top scorer, and forward Patrick Patterson is a force inside, but none of the other Wildcats strike fear into the hearts of opponents.

Gillispie has said he loves this team's effort at practice, and he said he loved the effort Saturday. Asked if he might make an X and O adjustment going into the SEC Tournament, Gillispie offered a revealing answer. "The games at this point aren't about Xs and Os," he said. "You have to be sound in your Xs and Os, and I think our Xs and Os are sound."

The hidden subtext is this: it's not the Xs and Os. It's the Jimmies and Joes. Somehow, Kentucky is suffering from the type of talent deficit that results in 23 turnovers (compared to seven assists) and 2 of 11 shooting from 3-point range against a Florida team that had to win Saturday to jump back on the bubble. In fact, Gillispie sounded an awful lot Saturday like Florida coach Billy Donovan did this time last year. As the 2007-08 season wound down, Donovan insisted that his young players were trying as hard as they could. Then, before the Gators' run to the NIT semifinals, Donovan kicked his players out of their locker room and stripped them of their Florida gear because he didn't feel they knew how to practice.

Gillispie may not need to take such a dire step. His players seem to understand their situation. Patterson pledged to stay away from newspapers and the Internet this week. "I'm not going on the Cats' Pause and the message boards," Patterson said. Forward Ramon Harris offered this mature evaluation of the mindset the Wildcats must use to approach the SEC tourney.

"If we start thinking we have to win the SEC Tournament," Harris said, "we're going to look past the first team we play."

Meeks, however, took the award for brutal honesty with his response to a question about how the Wildcats could possibly think they could win four games in four days. "It's all we can do," he said.

The last time Kentucky sat out the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats roared back the following year behind a quartet of overachievers who cared about Kentucky basketball so much that they stayed through the probation. That group, which fell on Christian Laettner's miracle in the 1992 Elite Eight, will forever be known as The Unforgettables.

So, what do you think this year's team will be called?

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