Kentucky’s stumble down the stretch has left the Wildcats in unfamiliar territory heading into the Southeastern Conference tournament.
Rather than use the tournament they’ve won a record 43 times to bolster their seeding in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee, the Wildcats likely need to run the table in Tampa to simply make the field of 65.
It’s enough to send one of the nation’s most passionate fan bases into a frenzy. Message boards and sports pages across the region are filled with angst over Kentucky’s fate following a four-game losing streak to end the regular season.
Don’t count Billy Gillispie among the concerned.
The second-year coach has tried to stay upbeat even as his team has imploded over the last month. Kentucky (19-12) has lost eight of its last 11 games and hardly looks like the squad that appeared to be the class of a so-so SEC in January.
“The tournament, I think, is a great situation,” Gillispie said this week during the SEC coaches’ teleconference.
Maybe because it’s the only opportunity the Wildcats have left to salvage their season.
Kentucky hasn’t missed the NCAAs since 1991, when the Wildcats were barred from NCAA competition due to recruiting violations tied to the end of the Eddie Sutton era.
Gillispie understands his team needs to find a way to reel off a few wins in Tampa, but he doesn’t feel any added pressure to keep Kentucky’s 17-year NCAA streak alive.
Besides, he’s hardly the only coach of a team whose NCAA chances are very much up in the air. Outside of SEC champ LSU, there isn’t another program in the 12-team league that is assured of an NCAA invite.
“(There’s) a bunch of teams going into it that haven’t had the regular season they wanted,” Gillispie said. “It’s a situation where anytime you’re playing in a tournament and it’s ‘win or go home’ it’s going to add to the pressure. I think that there won’t be any more pressure this year than there is every single year.”
Probably, but there is more at stake for a coach whose team has struggled over the last five weeks. Kentucky’s woes began with an 85-80 loss to Ole Miss on Jan. 27, a defeat that ended their perfect 5-0 start to SEC play.
The Rebels exposed Kentucky’s lack of size to dominate the backboard and slowed down Kentucky stars Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks enough to pull out the victory.
“They made a bunch of shots and they executed very well and they had a hard time guarding their perimeter guys and they hit the offensive boards and whipped us pretty well,” Gillispie said.
Kentucky will get a chance at revenge on Thursday when the two teams meet again in the opening round of the SEC. Playing on the first day of the four-day tournament is a rarity for the Wildcats and means they’ll have to play four games in four days to reach the title game.
Gillispie is concerned about his players taking the long view.
“You can’t win the tournament on the first day of the tournament,” He said. “You have to try and play your first opponent and try to beat that opponent.”
Having Meeks break out of a mini-slump — by the junior’s lofty standards — would help. While he’s averaging a healthy 20 points over Kentucky’s last six games, the shooting touch that made him one of the hottest players in the country in January has cooled off. Meeks is making just 37 percent of his shots over the last six games, including just 26 percent of his 3-pointers.
Meeks went just 6-of-18 from the floor during a 60-53 loss to Florida on Saturday, and Florida player Ray Shipman said after the game that Meeks told him Gillispie ordered Meeks not to shoot anymore.
Gillispie laughed when asked about i t, denying he asked his best shooter to shut it down. The bigger problem, one that’s plagued the Wildcats all season, has been the ineffective efforts of Meeks’ teammates to help him out.
“It goes down to how much we’re helping him,” Gillispie said. “Everybody’s doing a great job of making it difficult for him to get scores. I think he’s going to have a big breakout game. we definitely need it.”