After two seasons of double-digit losses and middle-of-the-pack performances in SEC regular and post-season play and in NCAA play, fans and media scrutiny centered around the program's relative slide into mediocrity became too much for coach Tubby Smith.
Smith knew that the prospects for the next season did not look all that optimistic, either. The team, which had drawn so much ire from fans already, was now losing three seniors and it was widely believed that they would also lose their top scorer and rebounder, Randolph Morris. That did happen, of course. To replace these losses, Tubby was bringing in a solid prospect in A.J. Stewart and a couple of projects. The really big fish yet to commit, point guard Jai Lucas and big man Patrick Patterson, were looking questionable at best.
So Tubby bolted for Minnesota. I don't blame him. While I have never bought into the outrage from some of the national media that painted Wildcats fans as unreasonably maniacal, demanding and unrealistic, the fact is Tubby Smith did a great deal for the program over his career. He knew he could make just as much money, and be appreciated more some place else without nearly the aggravation. So, it was off to the land of a thousand lakes.
But let's face facts: Tubby Smith did not leave Kentucky in the best of shape. When Bobby Perry and Randolph Morris left the team, they took large chunks of leadership, scoring and rebounding with them, and that productivity cannot be easily replaced by the remaining cast and incoming class as it sits today. The outlook for next year is simply not all that compelling.
Enter one Billy Clyde Gillispie.
Gillispie holds the NCAA record as the only coach to ever lead a team to the most improved record in the country for two teams in consecutive years. The great news for Gillispie is that, while Kentucky could sure use improvement, he is certainly not coming to a team that was 8-24 last season. And with players like Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley, and Jodie Meeks, he will not have to fish a player out of his science class to bring the ball up the court, as he once did at UTEP.
The April signing period is just around the corner and the Cats need to reinforce their roster in a bad way. "There are very few people who can get the job done in recruiting like Gillispie," said Bret Bearup, former Kentucky Wildcat and now a senior executive with the Denver Nuggets, and friend of Gillispie. "The guy is a workaholic. He won't stop until the job is done."
That is music to the ears of fans that have seen Kentucky's recruiting efforts move at what might best be described as a lethargic pace over the past few years. "There is not much time, but if anyone can plug the holes with top talent at this stage of the game, it's Gillispie," said Dave Telep, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com.
So, what about the current players? Sometimes change is good. Just look at what happened in 1998. Rick Pitino had left after winning it all in 1996 and reaching the championship game in 1997. Gone from those teams were future NBA players Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, Mark Pope, Walter McCarty , Tony Delk and Antoine Walker. Yet, Tubby brought a fresh perspective and new style to a team that had a huge talent drop from the previous two years. Tubby did a masterful job in helping a depleted team overachieve and win the championship.
"It was amazing what we were able to accomplish," said then-assistant coach Mike Sutton in an interview with Kentucky Sports Report back in September. "The current players had learned a lot from Pitino, but when Tubby came in, he brought a lot of new energy with him. He shook things up. There is a lot to be said for that."
And indeed, Gillispie is known for working his players long and hard and he has a system that demands compliance. "He has a boot camp every year," said one Texas journalist that has been covering sports in that state over 10 years. "He breaks them down for the first couple of weeks both physically and mentally. He then rebuilds them and molds them into his system. The current players will be in great shape and they will all buy into what he is doing. He is a tireless worker at developing the players on the team. The year after he arrived at Texas A&M, the basketball I.Q. doubled."
"Gillispie is just not going to let the team fail. It just won't happen," added Bearup.
From the standpoint of curing what ails Kentucky, it's hard to imagine that Mitch Barnhart could have done a much better job than Gillispie, outside of Donovan, and they gave that one the good old college try. Still, Donovan will undoubtedly leave for the NBA at some point. So, three years from now, when Kentucky is back in the Final Four and Florida is breaking in a new coach, we'll see which team got the better end of that deal.