Blue-Collar 'Cats? Gillispie Optimistic as Kentucky Hits Road

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - No fireworks, no high-fives, barely even a smile.

Sorry, but Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie knows one win - even if it was knocking then-No. 13 Vanderbilt from the unbeaten ranks as the Wildcats did in a double-overtime thriller on Saturday - won't erase the memories of his team's sluggish start.

Still there are signs, namely plucky defense, clutch shooting and gritty play down the stretch, that the first-year coach may finally be getting through to his players.

The Wildcats beat a ranked team for the first time in 12 tries despite blowing a 16-point second-half lead and losing do-everything guard Derrick Jasper to a sprained left knee.

It was the kind of game Kentucky may have lost two weeks ago. Yet rather than panic after the Commodores roared back, Kentucky simply went to work defensively, holding Vanderbilt without a field goal in the second overtime.

Asked Monday if there was a point during the game when he realized the Wildcats were starting to adapt to his blue-collar philosophy, and Gillispie just shrugged his shoulders and credited his players for surviving 50 hellish minutes.

"You don't compete for one play, it doesn't work like that,'' Gillispie said. "You don't compete and have one play stand out. It's play after play after play after play. If you're going to compete you've got to become grinders and I think that's what we're becoming.''

It's the kind of effort that may have finally produced a detente between Gillispie and senior guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.

The coach has been critical of the two main holdovers from former coach Tubby Smith, chastising them on everything from shot selection to lethargic defensive play.

Yet Gillispie defended both on Monday. He blamed Bradley's teammates for doing little to help him out offensively during Vanderbilt's comeback, forcing Bradley to go one-on-one and take difficult shots.

Even more surprising was Gillispie's defense of Crawford, who has spent the majority of the season in Gillispie's doghouse for poor practice habits that ultimately led to his benching. Crawford started against the Commodores, and responded by playing all 50 minutes, scoring 17 points despite being hobbled by plantar fasciitis.

"He's not injured, but he's hurt,'' Gillispie said. "But to fight through it ... and do as good a job as he did says a lot about his will and his maturity as a senior leader.''

Crawford, in turn, credited Gillispie with keeping the team focused even as the anxiety level of one of the nation's most ardent fan bases rose to unprecedented levels.

"He wants what is best for all of us, and he wants to us improve,'' Crawford said. "He is still very tough in practice, (but) we are all growing together.''

If the Wildcats want to produce any real momentum, they'll need to grow up quickly.

As giddy - or maybe was it relieved - as the players were following the win, Kentucky (7-7, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) enters Tuesday's game at Mississippi State (11-5, 2-0) as a .500 team. They're used to much better at the nation's winningest program.

However, following a nightmare nonconference season that included losses to Gardner-Webb, San Diego and archrival Louisville, there's room for optimism perhaps for the first time this year.

"Their mind-set is they're going to be tough and they're going to be tough throughout the remainder of our season,'' Gillispie said. "They're getting tougher as we speak.''

The Wildcats don't really have a choice.

Jasper's knee is day to day. He sat out practice along with Jodie Meeks (strained hip flexor) on Monday, though they will travel with the team to Mississippi State.

It's another hurdle in a season full of them, though Gillispie thinks he no longer has to worry about his team's effort level regardless of who is on the floor.

"If we can ever get everyone out there and they all have the same kind of mind-set then we're going to be a really good defensive team and I think we'll be a pretty good offensive team as well,'' Gillispie said. "But no matter if they're able to be out there or not, they've figured out that we have to be tougher.''


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