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Kentucky Basketball At the Crossroads: Should Gillispie Stay or Go?

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There’s a saying: When your expectations are too high, adjust your expectations. I generally reject most of pop psychology, but that makes sense in modern college sports where parity reigns supreme. When it comes to Kentucky basketball these days though, expectations are the very reason a change is not only evident, but necessary.

The end of the Billy Gillispie tenure seems all but a foregone conclusion following a season of disappointment which saw the Wildcats miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years and a rather embarrassing exit from the NIT.

Let the coaching circus begin — again.

Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky’s athletic director, botched this opportunity the last time he hired a basketball coach. After the exit of Tubby Smith (who took a terrible Minnesota program to the NCAA tourney this year, by the way), Barnhart hurriedly brought in Gillispie whose successes at Texas A&M got him the media push for a “big time” job. Kentucky pulled the trigger and the madness began almost immediately. Gillispie is not a bad basketball coach; he’s a bad basketball coach in a fishbowl like Kentucky where basketball is followed like football is at Notre Dame.

Forget history. What about now? Kentucky will never be a football juggernaut, but that program is quite respectable in its own right. Kentucky has great basketball facilities and there is little doubt that the money and support are there. The unattractive part is the conference.

Kentucky thrived in the league because for years, it was THE basketball school among football schools. Now Florida, Tennessee, and LSU have solid programs. That means Kentucky can’t simply open the doors to the top recruits in the area. There’s also that school over in Louisville with that coach who failed with the Boston Celtics, but routinely lays the wood to his former employer. Even with basketball tradition at Kentucky, basketball in the SEC will always be second fiddle to that rather lucrative fall sport.

Can an SEC school win championships? Sure. However, even when Florida was enjoying back-to-back national championships, a certain freshman quarterback was a much bigger deal than anything the Gators’ hoops stars did.

Another consideration is where the best basketball is played. The ACC has long been a hotbed of hoops, the Big East made a strong statement with three number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament this year (and three teams in the Elite 8), and the Pac-10 routinely produces NBA-level talent. In other words, if you are a school looking for a solid coach, try the coasts where the game is a very, very big deal. Kentucky can ill afford to make get another hiring mistake as a few aforementioned SEC schools have already made moves to get ahead of the folks in Lexington.

Kentucky is not a quick fix any more than it is a total rebuild. It will take a coach with the kind of hunger, drive, and willingness to try and rise above the limitations of the SEC in order to bring the Wildcats back to where the fans and those behind the program think it should be. However, going young would be a mistake as it takes a certain maturity and mentality to handle the good and the bad of a program with tradition and high expectations. If Kentucky does not make the right hire, tradition, history, and memories will be the closest Kentucky gets to a championship in the future.

About J. Newcastle