Clawing back

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

It was late January and Kentucky was 7-9. Billy Gillispie looked like he needed a vacation or three and some of the Wildcats fans were having some serious buyers' remorse. This was not happening, was it?

Gillispie was supposed to take the Wildcats from good to great again. A program with seven national titles wants more than just NCAA appearances. They wanted to contend, they wanted urgency, they wanted a replacement for Tubby Smith and here they got it with a workaholic bachelor from Texas who thinks about nothing but basketball 24 hours a day.

No one expected a Final Four this year, but they also weren't expecting a loss to Gardner-Webb. Or UAB, Houston and San Diego. Or complete blowouts at the hands of bitter rivals Louisville and Indiana. Then there was that ninth loss, this time at the hands of Florida and every UK fan's No. 1 coaching choice last spring, Billy Donovan.

By that point rumors were flying that Gillispie wanted to run back to the Big 12, which was unlikely since it would have gone against every single thing he's ever been about.

Still, this was bad. Even if Gillispie kept trying to tell people it wasn't as bad as they thought.

"Iā€™m not into prognosticating, but I have been liking what I have been seeing for the last three or four weeks," he said at the time. "I think this team is going to continue to get better."

Kentucky is 11-2 since then, now 18-11 on the season heading into the Southeastern Conference tournament and, eventually, what should be the NCAAs. To call this a remarkable turnaround doesn't do it justice simply for the fact it was done in the game's biggest fishbowl.

"Billy Gillispie deserves a lot of credit," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said Monday. "He's retooled his team in progress."

Gillispie does deserve credit and so too do his players, who certainly could have quit on this season. But when the times got tough, they got tougher, especially senior guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.

What's made this run ā€“ capped by Sunday's victory over Florida ā€“ even more impressive is UK also lost super freshman Patrick Patterson to injury, depleting an already thin front court.

What this is really about is old-school college basketball. At the high-major level, the game is often more about recruiting than development. Here in the era of one-and-done superstars, it is very difficult to win without big-time players. Programs have focused on coaches who can deliver that talent.

These days it is often about the coach who can get better players, not the one who can get players better.

Gillispie is a driven and proven recruiter, no doubt (he has two star players en route for next year). But he climbed the coaching ladder swiftly because of his ability to turn teams around on the fly. He won big in just his second season at UTEP and Texas A&M, long before his recruits could make a huge impact.

At Kentucky, he managed to do it even quicker. And, if anything, he's looking back on the season now as a blessing for the entire team.

"I think it's important for everyone in life, are you going to say, 'Well, this is going to be a tough situation, are we just going to fall down or are we going to step forward?' " he said Monday. "All these guys stepped forward."

Kentucky needs some success in the SEC tournament to assure itself an NCAA bid, although if the committee is about who is playing their best basketball in the here and now, the Wildcats would be a natural selection.

We'll leave that to the bracket predicting people.

Either way, what started as a horror show turned into a season of pride. This might just be the shifting of expectations that a losing record deep in the heart of January can bring, but UK will take it.

There are even some parallels here to Rick Pitino's first season in Lexington, when he took over a depleted, scandal-ridden program and led it to the most applauded 14-14 mark in history.

Gillispie took over a much better situation, of course. Tubby Smith left the program in decent shape with some tough-minded players.

The kind of players who looked at 7-9 and, just like Gillispie, believed that the season wasn't lost.

"I think we're rolling right now and everyone is coming together," guard Derrick Jasper said.

Down in the Bluegrass, it's better late than never.

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