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Where We Are: The “Experts” Weigh in on the Cats

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The game on Saturday was the final test of the first half of the regular season for the Cats and the result was disappointing. The Cats were beaten by a better team in a way that bordered on the humiliating, but then was saved by a late run. In many ways the game was a perfect replica of the rest of the first half of the season with the same mistakes being repeated and the deficiencies that have caused so many problems all season, once again shown to the world. Because it was a relatively quiet day on the college basketball landscape, many were able to weigh in on the state of the Cats and each had a slightly different take. Rick Pitino, Billy Packer, Jay Bilas and Doug Gottlieb (three great basketball minds a perpetrator of credit fraud) each gave their take on the state of the Cats and each had some validity in what they said. Below is the gist of each of their takes, followed by my decidedly “non-expert” evaluation as to what they said.

RICK PITINO: While he often irritates me in a “locked in a room with Bill O Reilly with Steven A. Smith for 48 hours straight” sort of way, there is no doubt that Rick Pitino loved his time at Kentucky. He has also befriended Coach Billy Clyde and provided him support during his early tenure at the University. Today his message about Coach Gillispie was clear….he thinks Gillispie is doing things the right way, will stir the ship back on course soon and the Cats are on there way to winning big quickly. While not calling out the current players, he insinuates that the change from Tubby to Gillispie is a change in style that is dramatic and that it will take a long adjustment period….but when that adjustment period is complete, the Cats will be very good for a long time.

MJ Response: In addition to coaching one of his best games at Louisville today, Pitino also hit on an important point on UK this year. Lost in the “Tubby Sucks/Tubby is great” debate is the huge difference in the culture around the program. Tubby Smith was very much a gentle father-like figure (think Mr. Drummond) while Gillispie is more of a disciplinarian with a heart of gold (think Major Dad). Making this adjustment in styles can be difficult. Add to that a completely different defensive philosophy, which relies much more on ball pressure and athleticism, as opposed to exploiting team’s weaknesses and protecting the basket and you will have a huge learning curve. This has been lost all year on most UK observers and Pitino hit the nail on the head in this assessment.

BILLY PACKER: There is likely no one I have ever criticized more (outside of Jerry Tipton and Rob Bromley) than Billy Packer. But when he isnt Mr. Negativity and focuses on calling a game, he really makes some great insights. Today was one of his best. Talking about UK, he made two important points. First, he said that he expected a huge turnaround from this year to next year, when the players “are more connected to the system.” Translation: Gillispie needs players who totally buy into what he is selling and are suited for his offensive and defensive philosophies. There will be more of those players on next year’s team. Second, he also said that he believed UK should do more to try to win this year by taking advantage of the strengths they do have, such as Crawford’s ability to take the ball to the basket.

MJ response: I am with Billy on both points here. First, next season will see a team with more guys that are Billy G type players….guys who play D first (think Harris, not Bradley), are long and athletic (like Liggins and Miller) and are 100% effort (like Coury). That and a year of getting accustomed to the system will pay dividends. Second, my biggest criticism of Billy G has been the second point. This team has some strengths that arent being utilized. Even if it isnt pretty, there is a reason UK plays better when down 15….the players are allowed to improvise more, which is this team’s strength. It aint pretty and it doesnt inspire team work but it may get a few more Ws this year. Long term, UK will be better when guys like Ramel and Joe (who dont really fit into Coach G’s philosophy) arent on the team. But if you are going to play them this year, you need to play in more to what they are good at doing.

JAY BILAS: Maybe the most controversial take of the day came from the best announcer in the business (and not just because he and I share a graduate school alma mater). Bilas said that Kentucky fans need to be patient because they asked for this result, and now have to accept the time it will take to change. He says that Billy Clyde is a different kind of coach that needs different kinds of players. You must give him time to get those before you badger him. But then he also said that while he may be a better recruiter, he isnt a better coach than Tubby Smith…..and you cant expect him to be that overnight.

MJ response: A very interesting take from Bilas and one I generally agree with. Without entering the Tubby debate question, Bilas notes that a lot of what Gillispie does is based on recruiting….an area that Kentucky fans wanted an upgrade in. Well that doesnt happen over night. And thus while Tubby might do better with THIS TEAM right now this year, Billy Clyde and what he brings to the table is a more long term process. When you sign up for that, you must sign up for the transition period as well. This is that period.

DOUG GOTTLIEB: The most decidedly pro-Gillispie point today came from Doug Gottlieb who basically said, look….Kentucky is not good, the players arent good, they dont buy in and this isnt the group for Kentucky. Wait till Billy Gillispie gets his players and he will be fine…..period.

MJ response I generally agree with Doug with one caveat. I do think Billy Clyde will win at UK and win big before it is all said and done. But I also dont think the team should be as bad as it is this year. And it isnt simple enough to just say that “well these guys stink, so who cares.” The problem is more nuanced than that and that is showcased by the three opinions above. So while Doug states his position with authority and makes the issue black and white, ultimately it is the least nuanced and accurate arguments of the day.

The bottom line is this….UK is going to have a tough year this year no matter what. Billy Gillispie is focused on changing the way UK plays basketball by changing the entire method of play, especially on the defensive end. With that is going to come defeats like this. We can argue about whether baby steps that would allow for fewer defeats this season would be a better approach (and would help with the 09 class of recruiting…..my BIGGEST concern right now), but the reality is, this is our path and we are taking it. I think all four commentators make good points and all agree on one thing. Kentucky will be back….and ultimately that is the one thing we all can unite in….well that, and our dislike of Jerry Tipton (I kid….because I love…well not really, but I do kid….)

Article written by Matt Jones