A look at a blue blood on the bubble
Dana O'Neil spends four dark days with the struggling Kentucky Wildcats
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- She has blonde hair, wears a Kentucky-blue T-shirt and holds a small sign in her hand. It says, "Big Dance Here We Come.''
On the court beneath her end line seats, the Wildcats betray her presumption, losing to Georgia, 90-85. In the corner of Rupp Arena near the tunnel where the team exits, two university policemen snicker as the horn sounds.
"You think coach is going to be in a good mood?" one says.
"Nope. Just make sure you stay away from the flames,'' says the other.
"Well at least we can book the Holiday Inn for that NIT game,'' the first chuckles back.
This is the current state of Kentucky basketball, fractured between hope and derision and adrift in a sea of unfamiliarity.
Ordinarily these are giddy times in the Bluegrass State. For 17 consecutive years, UK fans have spent the early parts of March awaiting the mere formality of their NCAA bid, the only mystery being what exotic locale the committee would take them to.
Now the state is in dizzying disarray, unsure how to handle the possibility of a March without madness.
Asked what would happen if Kentucky didn't make the NCAA tournament, Tom Leach, native Kentuckian, lifelong fan and the Cats' radio play-by-play voice since 2001, pauses and then laughs, "Well, I just don't know. I really don't.''
While the Wildcats are caught in the crossfire and are a team trying desperately to maintain the facade of normalcy, four days with the program shows the transparency of that facade.
This is a team sinking under the albatross of scrutiny. Players sag under the heavy burden of a state's expectations and a program's glorious history books. In a situation desperate for a practical joke or a silly movie to cut the tension, there is nothing but the seriousness of basketball.
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It is the coach's way of operating. A self-described basketball junkie who says he has "no balance" in his life, Billy Gillispie isn't one for small talk or normal social interaction. He sits alone on the team charter plane and bus, reading, sleeping or looking out the window. He is all basketball business, a man who ends each pregame session and film session with a "Let's go to work.''
And you know what? None of that would matter if the Cats were 24-7. But they are 19-12, and barring a miraculous run through the SEC tournament, destined for their first NIT appearance since 1979.
Once the $2.5 million man destined to save Big Blue Nation from the torture of nine consecutive NCAA tournaments without a Final Four, Gillispie instead has saddled himself with the double whammy of not winning enough and not doing enough to curry favor among the fan base. He is perceived as prickly, aloof and guarded, a lunch pail of bad personality traits in the fishbowl that is Kentucky basketball.
And people far more important than the ones typing on message boards have noticed.
"Here every word is isolated to the syllable, every gesture is interpreted and it gets to be a burden, but Billy is paid very well to be the coach at Kentucky and with that comes a responsibility,'' says athletic director Mitch Barnhart, who plans to have a heart-to-heart with his coach at season's end. "The coach at Kentucky is more well known than the governor, and you have to recognize that.''
Asked how he thought his coach was handling the pressure, Barnhart responds, "It's been difficult. We're not all perfect born into this. We have to be willing to make adjustments. We ask our players to make adjustments and we need to be willing to do the same thing. Self-examination and self-awareness are very important. After two years, we need to sit down and talk about what we need to do to get this program back to where we want it to be.''
Ask any Cats fan and he or she will tell you one thing: This sure as hell isn't where they want it to be.
Wednesday evening, March 4, Lexington, Ky. -- Leach has just finished taping his pregame interview with Gillispie and grabs a chair in one of the "expensive seats" on the sidelines to talk Kentucky basketball.
Leach started his radio career at the age of 16 and by his senior year set his goal of becoming the voice of UK sports. He knows the team, knows the game and most of all knows the fan base.
"Tonight is do or die,'' Leach says. "You can't lose at home to Georgia. You need to at least split these last two games. If not? If not, then you'll have a very uncomfortable Big Blue Nation.''
Right now it is a festive nation. Things have not gone well for the Wildcats for a week, with back-to-back losses to South Carolina and LSU, but the NCAA tournament is still within reach and the game is at home.
Thirty minutes before tip, the team gathers in its neat-as-a-pin locker room, where Gatorade cups line a table as if set up with the help of a ruler and an assortment of chewing gum sits in military precision atop a trash can lid.
Assistant coach Jeremy Cox is the scout for Georgia. Cox followed Gillispie to Lexington after serving alongside him at Texas A&M for a season. He is a high-energy, staccato talker who manages to shoehorn a ton of information into just an eight-minute speech. Using three whiteboards built into the wooden work center at the front of the locker room, Cox goes over each Georgia player's tendencies, and the Bulldogs' offensive sets and defensive breakdowns.
"No. 20 is a shooter,'' Cox tells the Wildcats. "Don't miss an assignment on the ballscreens and dominate the boards.''
After he finishes, the players gather arm-in-arm in a circle for a prayer, huddle up with a 1-2-3 "Family" and head to the court. It is Senior Day and Kentucky's lone graduate-to-be, Jared Carter, is feted with the traditional ceremony that ends with the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home."
Afterward the team regroups inside the locker room. The whiteboards are covered with different information and Gillispie is talking.
"The season begins with this game,'' he concludes. "Let's go to work.''
There is no fire and brimstone, no rallying cries or even a "go get 'em" as the players huddle up in the darkened tunnel, break with another shout of "Family" and take the court to a thunderous ovation.
Two hours later, they leave to a cacophony of boos. Gillispie walks off the court alone, head bowed as one fan snidely yells, "Heckuva job, Billy. Heckuva job."
The impossible has happened. Georgia, a team that fired its coach five weeks ago, has two SEC wins and has won four times in 57 tries in Lexington, not only has beaten the Wildcats. The Bulldogs have all but torpedoed Kentucky's hopes of an NCAA bid.
UK will finish this season with six losses in front of the home crowd. Rick Pitino, who inherited a Kentucky team heading into the depths of probation, lost seven games at Rupp in eight years at the Wildcats' helm.
The Wildcats walk stoically down the hallway toward the locker room. On the other side of a blue curtain, the hooting and hollering of the celebratory Bulldogs only increases the sting.
The players sit alone for eight minutes. It is silent, monastery silent, vow-of-silence silent, the only noise provided by the hum of the heating unit. Gillispie and his staff meet in a private room. ESPN, which was allowed an all-access tour with the Wildcats, is asked to leave before he comes out.
Later, a university official says that Gillispie never spoke to his team except to tell the players what time practice was the next day.
For a regular-season game against a lousy opponent, the interview area is jammed, full of television cameras, print reporters, administrators, boosters and heaven knows who else. A woman with a pretty blue scarf tied in her hair cuts through the crowd and down a hallway. Tywanna Patterson is going to meet her son, Patrick, the Wildcats' top rebounder and second-leading scorer.
Among the litany of worries in Kentucky is whether Patterson and Jodie Meeks will be back next season, and interpreting Tywanna's words have become as much a sport as interpreting Gillispie's actions.
"Of course I'm frustrated, everyone is,'' she says. "I don't know what the problem is, but there is one. I can't put my finger on it. I thought we'd be better by now.''
There is plenty of conjecture to pick from. A radio host who rarely talks sports asks if Gillispie should be fired. The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that 20 of the 39 votes read on air say yes.
Mike Casey, who played alongside Dan Issel, recently joined Kenny Walker as ex-players voicing their displeasure with what they're seeing: "I hate to say it but a change has to be made and soon or we're going to lose what UK is all about,'' Casey told a fan Web site, aseaofblue.com.
What still needs to be done?
From the March 10 Bubble Insider: What remaining work must the main bubble teams do in order to get themselves some dancin' shoes? Bubble Insider
After the Georgia game, more than 11,000 people clog CatsPause.com, the UK kingpin of message boards, pointing to Gillispie's strange substitution patterns -- he subbed four players, including a walk-on, to start the second half and the Bulldogs promptly put together a 10-0 run -- as a key to the loss.
What seems most obvious is the joylessness surrounding the team. The air seemed thick with the pressure of expectation even before the game began.
"It disappoints me to see these guys hurting right now,'' Barnhart reflects. "The smiles have left their faces. This game is supposed to be fun and it doesn't look fun to me right now.''
Someone more central to the tragic play unfolding here agrees.
"We're not having fun right now,'' Patrick Patterson tells a handful of reporters in the media room. "We have to find a way to get the fun back.''
Thursday morning, March 5, Lexington, Ky. -- It is amazing how the same song can sound so different in just a little more than 12 hours. At 7:30 p.m., with 24,000 voices singing and a team standing arm in arm to thank a senior, "My Old Kentucky Home" is a celebratory ode to all things UK.
At 9:30 a.m., when played as part of a "highlight" package from the Wildcats' loss to Georgia for a taping of "The Billy Gillispie Show," it sounds like a dirge.
Today, WKYT sports anchor Rob Bromley has the unenviable task of revisiting a loss UK's coach would like to forget and posing difficult questions that need to be asked.
Gillispie sits through the review of the UGA loss and patiently goes over what went wrong until Bromley, in a carefully worded question, asks how Gillispie responds to charges that he's lost his team.
Though the smile never leaves his face, Gillispie pointedly tells Bromley there is nothing he can do when "you have already formed your opinion.'' During a break when the cameras are off, Bromley tries to explain that he wasn't speaking for himself, but his attempt to break down the semantics has no effect on Gillispie. He sticks to his point: He doesn't care about people who already have formed their opinions.
There is no doubt that Gillispie is a tough nut to crack. He says he has a small circle that he keeps close, rarely letting outsiders in. It's probably not a bad way to be when your every muscle tick is dissected. But while Gillispie's need for privacy is understandable, his standoffish behavior is hard to comprehend. He has been brusque with the media, both local and national, and his rude dismissals of ESPN sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards have been a hot topic in Kentucky.
He is not one to engage in small talk with anyone, brushing into and out of meeting rooms, locker rooms and breakfast rooms with a purposeful stride. This behavior probably didn't register much at his previous head coaching stops in El Paso (UTEP) and College Station (Texas A&M), but it jumps off the Richter scale in a Kentucky mired in a basketball debacle.
Gillispie says he doesn't grow tired of the ceaseless questions about his decisions or job security and that he has no complaints about his job, calling UK the "best place in the world to coach.''
"A lot of folks, a lot of people who aren't in the arena, have all the answers,'' he said in the lone sit-down interview he gave ESPN.com during its four-day all-access span. "I'm the same with some things. I'm a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan and when the Cowboys lose or do something, I have all the answers.
"What I don't have is any information. It's the same here. People have all of the answers and none of the information. They want to overanalyze everything and not get anything done. To me the only thing you can do is get back to work, so that's what I do.''
Work begins at 3:30 p.m. on the practice court at the Craft Center. Whatever Gillispie didn't say in the postgame locker room, he is saying now. For 30 minutes he stands in the middle of his players and talks. He doesn't raise his voice, so it is impossible to hear what he is saying, though a few words -- competitive, challenge -- do ring out as his players uncomfortably shuffle their weight from one foot to the next.
After practice, finally there is levity. Gillispie goes to talk to a visiting friend on the sideline and the players mess around, trying to outdunk one another or make crazy shots. Patterson busts a few dance moves while filming a shout-out to DanceBlue, the Kentucky charity dance marathon that begins Friday night.
Perhaps the only two people getting a pass in Kentucky right now are Patterson and Meeks. The two have carried the Wildcats this season, accounting for 55 percent of UK's offense. Meeks, the prolific scorer, is pleasant but quiet, leaving Patterson, the engaging big man, as the go-to person for the pulse of UK hoops.
He is from West Virginia, not borne into the meaning of Kentucky basketball. But after two years of wearing the jersey, he has come to understand it well.
"It's like playing for Team USA. You've got the entire state right in your ear and they don't care,'' Patterson says. "I always say it's a love-hate relationship. They love us, but they sure do hate us sometimes. My friends call up and say, 'What's the big deal? So you're struggling a little bit.' I tell them, 'Man you don't understand. This is Kentucky.'"
The thing about Kentucky, you can't escape what you're expected to do nor can you hide from a sense of underachieving. First there are the numbers, historical facts that spill off the tongue of Kentuckians with such ease that you think UK basketball must be taught along with reading, writing and arithmetic in the elementary schools.
Kentucky is: No. 1 in all-time wins (1,985), No. 1 in NCAA tournament appearances (50), No. 1 in NCAA tournament games (145), No. 1 in NCAA tournament wins (100), No. 1 in Associated Press poll No. 1 finishes (eight) and No. 1 in SEC titles (43), winning more than the other 11 teams combined. There are also those seven national championships and 13 Final Four appearances.
Then there are the daily reminders that smack the current crop of Wildcats in the face every day. When they cross the street from the Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge into the Craft Center, they enter a lobby lined with photographs of UK All-Americans. The photos stop at 2003, with Keith Bogans.
They walk across a floor dotted with a checkerboard logo. Called the pattern of excellence, each square houses a number representing a year Kentucky won a national championship: 48, 49, 51, 58, 78, 96, 98. There's an empty blue square where the next championship is supposed to go.
"I thought I was prepared for all of this,'' says freshman Darius Miller, who grew up on the Ohio border town of Maysville, Ky. "And then I got here and I realized I wasn't. I can't explain it. You have to experience it.''
Friday afternoon, March 6, Lexington, Ky., and Gainesville, Fla. -- In two days of practice, Gillispie hasn't revealed himself to be a yeller. He is more a sniper, a guy with a biting tongue who can make his point without ever inserting a curse word.
Far edgier in this practice, he reacts to a lazy lob pass with a "That's the difference between being 11-4 and 8-7 right now,'' and sarcastically asks a player if he's ready to hustle now.
The Cats go hard for a good two hours -- Gillispie squats at midcourt as the team sprints past in a full-court drill, but doesn't even blink as the bodies fly by -- before hurrying out to catch the charter flight to Florida.
Not surprisingly, Kentucky is a team afforded all of the luxuries of the biggest of big-time programs. The Craft Center is a 2-year-old, $30 million testimony to the might of UK basketball, a private men's and women's facility that requires a key fob swipe to access certain areas.
Off the end of the practice court is a Cats fan's nirvana, a closet overflowing with gear: T-shirts of every size, color and style.
Eight managers attend to the players' and coaches' every need, running madly at practice and popping up like jack-in-the-boxes whenever the team bus stops to make sure that every bag is unloaded.
As the team boards the bus for the airport, boxed lunches sit lined up on the sidewalk, each labeled with a player's name. At the airport, the travel party is greeted by managers who hand out boarding passes, and though this flight is going out of the main terminal, necessitating the inconveniences of TSA security, the Kentucky party travels through a security line reserved just for them.
On board the plane, water bottles wait in each seat pocket, players sit one person to two seats and flight attendants offer an assortment of snacks -- Doritos, mixed nuts, peanut M&Ms and Kit Kats -- plus a variety of Gatorade drinks.
It is the lap of luxury, a place to sit back, relax and forget the troubles of the bluegrass as the plane gains altitude.
About halfway into the flight the pilot comes over the speaker to update his passengers on their trip.
"We're about 40 minutes outside of Gainesville, flying over Athens, Georgia, right now,'' he intones.
Athens, Georgia, home to the University of Georgia.
Even the friendly skies offer no escape.
Saturday, March 7, Gainesville, Fla. -- His workout completed, Mitch Barnhart took a one-mile walk to a nearby Starbucks to clear his head. As he headed down the street in a baseball cap, shorts and T-shirt, an SUV drove by, stopped and banged a U-turn in the street.
As the car turned, Barnhart glimpsed at the license plate -- the Florida plates were set in a University of Kentucky frame.
"When I was at Oregon State, no one came into the coffee shop to ask me what was wrong with my teams,'' said Barnhart, who worked for four years in Corvallis before coming to Kentucky -- the first UK athletic director since 1934 to be hired without having any Kentucky ties, as it was noted in the press release to announce his hire. "It's not that they didn't care, it was just different. This is intense. This is the lifeblood of the state. This is something that has bonded this state for more than 100 years and they're hurting right now. And I feel their pain.''
Right now the commonwealth isn't terribly interested in empathy. It wants action. There are rumors that powerful people have jingled the AD's phone, calling for Gillispie's job.
If he is planning a bold move, Barnhart doesn't let on. He says he plans to meet with Gillispie at season's end for what he admits could be a delicate conversation, the implication that the discussion will be more about behavior than wins and losses.
Before Oregon State, Barnhart spent 12 years in the athletic department at the University of Tennessee, where the rabidity of expectations eventually swallowed up and spit out Phillip Fulmer. He knows well what UK people want and what the UK program is failing to deliver.
"People tell me I'm not from here so I don't understand, and that really bothers me,'' Barnhart says. "No one takes on a job that includes Kentucky basketball intending to lose. Part of what attracted me to this job, I was looking forward to the Final Four. That was one thing I hadn't enjoyed in my career and I'm still waiting. Trust me, there have been many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get to that spot.''
This isn't the route Barnhart is searching for.
Florida, led by Billy Donovan, the man Kentucky openly courted but couldn't woo two years ago, wins an ugly game, 60-53.
Patterson misses easy layups, Miller turns the ball over six times and Meeks makes just 6 of 18 shots, mistakes that easily can be interpreted as a team playing tighter than the insides of a super-ball.
It's a team that in January lost on a last-second, 25-foot shot to a Louisville squad that was crowned Big East regular-season champs on the same day the Wildcats lost what was practically an at-large elimination game at Florida (and don't think that doesn't stick in the craw of the UK faithful).
It's a team that beat West Virginia and swept rival Tennessee rather easily, but also one that lost to VMI, Ole Miss and Georgia. It's a team that started the SEC 5-0 and finished up 3-8. Tubby Smith, who took Kentucky to four regional finals (going 1-3) in 10 years, finished 9-7 in league play in each of his last two seasons.
Kentucky now has skidded to its first four-game, season-ending losing streak since 1907, all but guaranteed that anything shy of an SEC tournament crown will end the nation's third-longest run of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
After the players once again shuffle dejectedly to the locker room, they gather up their things, grab their boxed meals and settle into the bus ride for the airport.
By 6 p.m., the plane is off the ground and the Cats are returning home.
It's hard to know if that's a good thing.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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