It's blue-collar heaven for Kentucky

Josh Peter

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Flipping the script two months into the season, the Kentucky basketball team turned its horror story into a mystery. But it's less of a whodunit than a "how'd they do it?"

How'd Kentucky go from a 7-9 death spiral to a very respectable 18-12?

How'd Kentucky lose to the likes of Gardner-Webb and San Diego, then knock off previously unbeaten Vanderbilt and third-ranked Tennessee?

How'd Kentucky go from a team that looked in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 17 years to a team that poses danger when the 11th-seeded Wildcats play sixth-seeded Marquette on Thursday in a first-round game?

This might be a case for Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, in part because first-year Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie and his players sound disinterested in solving the mystery. But the clues are there for all to see.

Clue No. 1: Coach Tubby Smith, derided by Kentucky fans as 10-loss Tubby, was out. Gillispie, deemed by Kentucky as a genius, was in. Both men came across in public as easygoing. But behind closed doors, Gillispie conducted a grueling brand of hoops.

Players gasped for air. They collapsed in exhaustion. They wondered if they'd survive that day's practice, much less the season. Privately, they must have longed for their less-demanding former coach, who had resigned after a decade-long run that included winning the 1998 national championship and fueled restlessness among fans who expected more.

Or as Kentucky forward Perry Stevenson remarked when asked what Wildcats fans expect from their beloved basketball team: "Seven championships in six years."

The fans, upon hearing of Gillispie's focus on conditioning, expected instant change. They got it, too.

The perceived underachievers looked conditioned all right – conditioned to lose. In the second game of the season, before a sellout crowd at Rupp Arena, the Wildcats suffered a defeat against Gardner-Webb. Actually, defeat is an understatement. Humiliation is more like it, with Gardner-Webb coasting to an 84-68 victory.

Ramel Bradley, a senior guard, recalled the embarrassment.

"You're like, 'This is ridiculous,' " Bradley said Wednesday before the team's shootaround at the Honda Center. "Things can't get any worse at Kentucky."

But they didn't get much better either. Nine games later, again at Rupp Arena, Kentucky lost to San Diego 81-72.

Clue No. 2: In each game, Gardner-Webb and San Diego burned Kentucky for easy backdoor layups and demonstrated the Wildcats either had failed to grasp Gillispie's defensive system or quietly had rejected it.

Under Smith, the Wildcats protected the basket at all costs, even if it meant reducing pressure on the perimeter. Gillispie wanted pressure all the time.

He instructed players to challenge passes on the perimeter and look for steals. But when players lunged, they were out of position, requiring other players to rotate and pick up an unguarded opponent. Here's what became apparent: The Wildcats got the lunging down but failed to rotate fast enough. That led to easy baskets for the likes of the Bulldogs and Toreros, as Gillispie hollered for his players to rotate and Adolph Rupp rotated in his grave.

Instead of berating his players when the team fell to 6-7 prior to the start of Southeastern Conference play, Gillispie empowered them.

"He told us we could write our own story,'' Stevenson said, and the mystery began to take shape.

Clue No. 3: The training room. It was populated with important players. Derrick Jasper, a starting forward, missed the first 11 games of the season while recovering from offseason knee surgery. Jodie Meeks, another key player, missed seven of the first 13 games with a stress fracture in his pelvic area.

"Not a lot of teams can overcome injuries like that,'' Gillispie said.

But suddenly, Kentucky flipped the script.

Clue No. 4: In the SEC opener, Kentucky upset Vanderbilt. But just as revealing is what took place in the next two games, two more losses for the Wildcats.

While outsiders might have figured Kentucky was coming apart, those who watched a five-point loss to Mississippi State and an overtime loss to Florida saw something else: The Wildcats finally seemed to grasp, and embrace, Gillispie's aggressive defense.

With that, the Wildcats reeled off nine victories in their next 10 games.

Clue No. 5: With three regular-season games left, Patrick Patterson, Kentucky's star freshman forward, suffered a season-ending ankle injury. Stripped of the SEC's co-Freshman of the Year, Kentucky nonetheless put a scare into top-ranked Tennessee before losing by three points and dispatched South Carolina and Florida to finish the regular season 12-4 in the SEC.

"We became a blue-collar team,'' Stevenson said. "We come out and scrap and fight.''

They play the kind of defensive Gillispie demanded, limiting SEC opponents to 65.3 points per game, second only behind Mississippi State.

Clue No. 6: During the first 20 minutes of their shootaround Wednesday, the Wildcats clapped and hooted and offered one another encouragement as if they were at a spiritual revival. Toward the end of practice, Gillispie gathered his players around and one could sense affection rather than any resentment.

Gillispie pushed them hard during a 6-7 start, and he kept on pushing when the Wildcats rescued themselves and their season.

"He just had so much belief in us,'' Bradley said. "It was hard to doubt ourselves.''

So was it effort, injuries, belief or something more that led to the remarkable turnaround? All one knows for sure is after a horrific start, Gillispie told his players they could write their own story.

They did, and the story has yet to end.