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Gillispie optimistic after trying season

Billy Gillispie’s first season at Kentucky ended in very un- Kentuckylike fashion.

What started with 23,000 fans in Rupp Arena for Big Blue Madness in October ended quietly in a generic gym on the West Coast with an uncharacteristically quick exit from the NCAA tournament.

Eighteen wins and a firstround loss to Marquette in Anaheim, Calif., on March 22 – Kentucky’s first opening-round defeat in the tournament in 20 years – wasn’t exactly what the nation’s most passionate fanbase had in mind when the Wildcats lured Gillispie away from Texas A&M to replace Tubby Smith last spring.

Then again, dealing with injuries to three of his five best players and a battle of wills with one of his senior leaders isn’t what Gillispie had in mind either.

Yet in the aftermath of Kentucky’s 74-66 loss to Marquette last week, Gillispie was far from disappointed.

After leading the Wildcats (18-13, 12-4 Southeastern Conference) through the program’s most trying season in two decades – one that saw them become a national punchline following losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego, only to rally during SEC play – Gillispie knew he had little to complain about.

“It was better than I expected, it was fantastic,” Gillispie said. “I mean, as far as wins and losses go, no. I thought we would win more games. But if you would have said that you are going to have over 40 games missed by really, really, really, really good players, I would have said, ‘How in the world are we going to make it in the tournament?'”

For a while, it looked like the Wildcats wouldn’t, as the problems started seemingly moments after the cheers from the rousing pep rally called on the day of Gillispie’s hiring faded.

Derrick Jasper had microfracture surgery on his left knee over the summer, missed 11 games and spent the rest of the season valiantly playing on one leg.

Jodie Meeks took an awkward fall in an exhibition game against Seattle, leading to a stress fracture in the pelvic region. Meeks tried to come back in late December but suffered a strained hip flexor that limited the team’s best shooter to 11 games.

Do-everything freshman forward Patrick Patterson tried to carry the team on his back but went down with an ankle injury with two weeks left in the season.

Yet Gillispie’s troubles weren’t limited to the training room, as he and his players struggled to see eye-to-eye.

Freshman Alex Legion played sporadically for six games, then abruptly transferred to Illinois.

Senior guard Joe Crawford butted heads with Gillispie over his new coach’s defense-oriented approach. Crawford spent the first few weeks of the year coming off the bench, as Gillispie repeated over and over that only those who gave consistent effort in practice would start.

Eventually the message got through, but not until some lightly regarded visitors became more than just tourists at one of college basketball’s toughest venues.

Gardner-Webb dominated from the start to beat the Wildcats by 16 on Nov. 7. San Diego repeated the feat six weeks later, running away for an 81-72 victory on Dec. 29 that put Kentucky’s streak of 16 straight NCAA tournament appearances in jeopardy.

A loss to rival Louisville a week later, a game in which the Wildcats were dominated in the second half, hardly gave any proof of the resurgence to come.

It started with a double-overtime win over then-undefeated Vanderbilt on Jan. 12. Ten days later Kentucky held off Tennessee, leading to a remarkable stretch run in which the Wildcats won 11 of their final 13 regular season games, including the last three wins without Patterson.

Yet rather than be devastated by Patterson’s injury, his teammates responded with their most inspired play of the season, particularly forward Perry Stevenson.

Though matched up against markedly bigger opponents, Stevenson became a force in the middle, growing up in front of his coach’s eyes.

There will be major holes to fill next year with the departure of seniors Crawford and Ramel Bradley, who combined for 33.8 points per game and took all the big shots down the stretch.

“They never ran from responsibility, they accepted it,” Gillispie said. “Every single time something happened, and there were a lot of things happening … all eyes from those players were focused on Joe and Ramel, and they saw strength.”

It’s a lesson Gillispie hopes filters down to players like Patterson, Jasper and Meeks. The Wildcats will need their leadership next season on a team that won’t have a senior on it. Incoming recruits DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller – who helped his Mason Co. (Ky.) team to the state championship over the weekend – should give the Wildcats some depth.

But after his tumultuous first season in which everything that could have gone wrong seemingly did, Gillispie isn’t taking anything for granted. If this is as bad as it gets, he’ll take it, and so will the fans.

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