Despite being the only coach in Wildcat history to win a national championship in his very first season, beleaguered head coach Tubby Smith left the Bluegrass kingdom in a cloud of dust just days after completing his second consecutive season with double digit losses and another SEC middle of the pack finish. Shortly thereafter, new head coach Billy Clyde Gillispie arrived in Lexington to fanfare fit for royalty. The King is dead. Long live the King.
Gillispie is a coach with a reputation for a relentless work ethic and a track record for winning games and pulling in the top recruits--all qualities perceived to have been lacking in Kentucky basketball in recent years. And when the fans met their new coach, it was love at first sight. But only time will tell how long the romance lasts, or what will happen when the relationship meets its first bump in the road.
The former Texas A&M coach will inherit a team that finished 22-12 (9-7 SEC) last year. In most cases, a first-year coach taking over a team with 22 wins would be doing hand stands and cart wheels. But this is Kentucky, and in the Bluegrass State, 22 wins means little unless there are SEC Championships and deep NCAA Tournament runs that go along with them.
The bad news for Gillispie is that the Wildcats' only productive big man, Randolph Morris, headed to the NBA, foregoing his senior season. Worse, the most productive returning big man, Perry Stevenson (2.9 points and 2.2 rebounds per game), is a 6-9 string bean who averaged just over five minutes per game in the last 11 games of the season.
All is not lost, however. In one of his first acts as head coach, Gillispie put the finishing touches on a McDonald's All-America power forward, landing 6-9 Patrick Patterson, who chose the Wildcats over Duke and Florida.
Though Patterson will provide immediate help in the paint, the Wildcats will be looking to unproven veterans and untried freshmen to support Patterson on the blocks. Sophomore Jared Carter (7-2) was hurt much of his first season and off season surgery makes his potential contributions questionable. Stevenson reported to new strength and conditioning coach Todd Forcier at an anemic 188 pounds. Freshman forward, A. J. Stewart (6-8) and Mike Williams (6-11) are raw and in need of development.
The good news is that the Cats have a plethora of big, athletic and talented guards. Seniors Joe Crawford (leading returning scorer, 14.0 points) and Ramel Bradley (13.4 points) anchor the backcourt and sophomore sensation Jodie Meeks (8.7 points) is a superstar in the making. Derrick Jasper (6-6) ran the point much of the year as a freshman and can play three positions for Kentucky. Highly-regarded freshman Alex Legion can shoot the lights out and will find his share of minutes behind that firepower.
Gillispie has alluded that he will experiment with three or maybe even four-guard lineups and the Cats may have enough speed and athleticism to pull that off. While it remains to be seen how these small quick lineups will work against some of the beefy front lines in the league, the Cats should be Tennessee's primary challenger for the SEC East title.