(OR, Why Rick Pitino Is Like School On Thanksgiving)
John Stevens is a featured writer for Rush The Court.
Kentucky basketball fans are wondering if they might have built their new state-of-the-art basketball practice facility on a Native American burial ground.
As if the Wednesday night emasculation at South Carolina and yesterday’s home-court disappointment against LSU weren’t enough, two pieces of news are currently at the forefront of the collective mind of the Big Blue Nation, as Kentucky fans are known. First, it looks like Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino has decided to take a giant crap on any good will he had left in the non-Louisville part of Kentucky by profiting off of one of the worst moments in Wildcat basketball history. We’ll get to that in a moment. Second, in addition to the growing possibility of watching this year’s NCAA tournament from their dorm rooms, this weekend the team and their supporters have had to deal with this now well-publicized incident in which sophomore forward A.J. Stewart, sick of watching from the pine as his team loses more games than they should, told everybody where they could go a few days ago and actually quit the Wildcat squad for about 24 hours after the aforementioned South Carolina loss. He’s obviously been reinstated by his team, since he played in the home loss to LSU yesterday.
Reinstatement or not, Kentucky fans have to be wondering — what on EARTH have we done to deserve all of this?
“This” all started two years ago, specifically when Tubby Smith decided he’d had enough of (whether warranted or not) the second-guessing in Lexington and hit the road for Minnesota, which might have well been any place, as long as NCAA Tournament bids and occasional Sweet Sixteen appearances are acceptable goals there. If you recall, it was at this time that the one coach in the country that just about every Kentucky supporter considered their Heir Apparent, Florida’s Billy Donovan, flirted very seriously with the Kentucky job before actually accepting the same position with the Orlando Magic…only to back out on THAT commitment 48 hours later to stay at Florida. At that moment, Kentucky fans had to know — something was up.
Enter Billy Gillispie, not exactly the program’s first choice but a good selection for them since he had earned the reputation as the New Resurrector after his stints at UTEP and Texas A&M. He made friends early by ensuring that the Tubby Smith-recruited Patrick Patterson would still attend UK, but then dropped games to the likes of Gardner-Webb and San Diego (both at home), causing much head-scratching. Despite a tough season with injuries and personnel-juggling, Gillispie’s first UK team battled back, made the tournament (and it looked bleak for a while), and Gillispie won co-Coach of the Year honors in the SEC. About twelve seconds after their first-round loss, Kentucky fans were looking forward to the next season, knowing it would be better once everyone was healthy and some new bad-ass recruits came into the fold. The Billy Donovan snub was virtually forgotten.
One of those players returning to health in that off-season was versatile point guard Derrick Jasper. Having gotten over all the physical and mental hurdles that come with microfracture surgery of the (left) knee, the 2008-09 edition of the Wildcats was his to lead. Jasper was poised to be the floor general of one of the storied programs of college basketball. It was to be “his” team. But instead, in a move that nobody saw coming, after a mere two years of living in Lexington — citing “homesickness” — Jasper bailed on his chance to lead the program, choosing relative obscurity over an amazing opportunity. He transferred to UNLV and left Kentucky high and dry with point guard problems that Gillispie hasn’t been able to solve with junior Michael Porter and freshman DeAndre Liggins. How big was this loss? Considering that the point guard handles the ball 60% of the time for any given team, is it a coincidence that Kentucky is 338th out of 341 Division I teams in turnovers per game? Probably not.
Then came the home loss to VMI earlier this year, an inexcusable loss given the Gardner-Webb debacle from the year before and the alarming talent disparity between the two teams. With that loss still stinging, a few games later (in a game Kentucky still won), Liggins refused to re-enter a close game against Kansas State in a protest about playing time. For a day or so it looked like Liggins’ status with the team was tenuous at best, but (just like what’s happened with the current A.J. Stewart situation) the players voted to reinstate him. This had to remind Kentucky followers of the Alex Legion strangeness from the previous season; Legion was a prize recruit with a nice outside shot, and who they were going to count on for some serious point production…but he didn’t even make it to Christmas in his first year at UK, leaving because he (and his mom) felt he wasn’t getting enough PT. And now — this weekend’s situation with Stewart.
Kentucky fans are left wondering what has happened to the culture in their program. Their obvious Heir Apparent in Billy Donovan declined to return even though he had been groomed for the job since the Pitino years; with inexcusable losses to comparatively talent-bereft teams (and not too many surprising wins) Billy Gillispie is starting to look like a good example of the Peter Principle; some important players have jumped ship, seemingly preferring oblivion over recognition and opportunity, and others choose unproductive ways to protest lack of playing time; and despite having two lottery picks on the team and some hard-working young role players, the Wildcats find themselves sliding down the bubble’s surface this season and are giving the tournament selection committee every reason to leave them off the bracket two weeks from now with these stretch losses. This is a program that didn’t exactly weep when Tubby Smith left town; I’m not even saying they’re wrong about that, since after Smith’s 1998 title run with the Wildcats, he never returned to the Final Four in his next nine seasons — would UNC, Kansas, Duke, or UCLA fans put up with such a streak these days? — but keep in mind that, for unknown reasons, Billy Gillispie hasn’t even signed his contract at UK even though he’s basically got two seasons under his belt, now. Many folks in Lexington wonder if he should even bother, with UK’s performance this year, even if the team slips into the tournament somehow. And to make matters worse, if Kentucky fans have to watch this tournament without their Wildcats for the first time in 17 years, this is the time of year that a certain shot by a certain former Duke player gets played over and over again…
Oh, but if only that were the end of it for the Big Blue Nation.