LEXINGTON, Ky. — Just when you thought Kentucky and Billy Gillispie were starting to turn things around, the reasons to doubt resurfaced.
The stage was set for the Wildcats and their second-year coach finally to make believers out of the rest of the country on Saturday night. They had generated some momentum with a five-game winning streak at just the right time. No. 21 Miami was making a road trip to Rupp Arena, offering a chance for the kind of non-conference win that impresses the NCAA tournament selection committee. The game was nationally televised. A snowstorm – the first of the season in central Kentucky – even greeted the Hurricanes as they got off their bus.
The 'Canes proceeded to greet the Wildcats with a 20-point halftime deficit. It took less than seven minutes for the Wildcats to fall behind by double digits. By the time the first-half buzzer sounded they trailed 46-26, which left Rupp eerily silent and looking like a congregation suffering through a long-winded sermon. Miami's Jack McClinton (17) and James Dews (14) had more total points than the entire Wildcat team.
Kentucky did muster an impressive comeback, eventually cutting the deficit to as little as four. But, the horrific start proved too costly and Miami came away with a 73-67 triumph.
"It was very disappointing to me the way we played," Gillispie said. "Our players have to take more control of our team."
Big Blue nation should be wondering if Gillispie was the right choice to take control of its program.
Last season the fans largely blamed their struggles on previous coach Tubby Smith - who has Minnesota off to an impressive 8-0 start incidentally - and there was some credence to that angle. Smith's last few recruiting classes were sub-par by Kentucky's lofty standards.
But the brunt of the blame must now be shifted to Gillispie. The Kentucky roster is made up of more players he recruited than Tubby did (seven to five).
What's more disturbing is that Gillispie can't seem to figure out which players should be playing. Slow-footed Michael Porter (a Tubby recruit) continues to start at point guard over the much faster and much bigger DeAndre Liggins, an athletic 6-6 freshman with an NBA future.
If Gillispie had started Liggins against Miami the outcome may have been different. Porter had two points and zero assists and fouled out in 17 minutes. Liggins, who sparked the comeback, stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points, seven boards, five assists and two steals.
Gillispie is also butting heads with the very players he chose. Liggins caused a stir earlier this year by refusing to enter a game against Kansas State. Kevin Galloway, a junior college transfer who was brought in to compete for the starting point guard job, has played a total of 29 minutes, and 19 of those came in a blowout win over Lamar. Former four-star recruit Alex Legion, who has a much-needed outside shooting touch, transferred away at midseason last year to Illinois.
Gillispie is getting outcoached as well. Miami stuck with a 2-3 zone nearly the entire game, and the Wildcats seemed ill-prepared for it. They struggled to get the ball inside to Patrick Patterson, who had only four of his 19 points in the pivotal first half.
"They were very smart," Gillispie said. "They made us just stand around and not carry out our assignments and not attack like we're supposed to."
Gillispie's worst sin is making Rupp and its guaranteed sold-out 23,000 seats, which should be one of the biggest home-court advantages in college basketball, look vulnerable to just about any Division I team.
Gardner-Webb won in Rupp last year. VMI did this year, scoring an inexcusable 111 points along the way. Now the Wildcats, which hold the NCAA's longest home winning streak with 129 straight from 1943-55, are losing home games by halftime.
Nothing like that happened under Tubby's watch, which included an average of 26 wins a year in Lexington. It makes you wonder how much longer a fan base that wasn't satisfied with that kind of success will put up with the disturbing trends Smith's successor seems to be setting.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.