Kentucky basketball is shadow of its old self

Injuries and a coaching change have Kentucky in unfamiliar waters.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
Published January 19, 2008

GAINESVILLE - What's wrong with Kentucky?

It's hard to talk Kentucky basketball these days without that question popping up somewhere in the conversation.

The Wildcats arrived in Gainesville for tonight's nationally televised game against Florida with a long list of problems and none of the mystique that once defined one of the nation's most storied programs.

Kentucky 7-8, 1-1 SEC is unranked and has lost seven of its last 10 games. First-year coach Billy Gillispie has been booed on his homecourt and maligned on talk shows and message boards by rabid Kentucky fans. Yet he indicated Thursday things aren't nearly as bad as they may seem.

"It's been fantastic, other than the wins and losses," he said when asked about his tenure so far. "It's not about me personally, but I've enjoyed every single second. I just don't like to lose."

Then his enjoyment has been compromised.

The Wildcats were a preseason Top 25 team, but things turned ugly quickly with losses to Gardner-Webb, UAB, Houston, Indiana and San Diego in the first 11 games. This is the first time in 18 seasons that Kentucky has played Florida while carrying a losing record (it was 5-7 in 1990), and its first trip to Gainesville under .500.

"I expected Kentucky to be around the Top 25 for most of the year," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who will call the game tonight. "They do have some experience returning. And with Patrick Patterson coming in, he's one of the top freshman big guys in the country. But they've had so many injuries. It's kind of been a perfect storm of new things that have hit that program. They not only have a new coach and a different system, but they also have had a lot of their guys missing time, so there has been a real lack of continuity for them."

Kentucky has used 12 starting lineups through its first 15 games, and seven players have missed practice or playing time because of injuries. Most notable are projected sophomore starters Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks, who have missed a combined 20 games.

Jasper, who started the last 27 games of his freshman season, missed the first 10 games this season after offseason surgery on his left knee. He returned in late December, but sprained the MCL in his left knee Jan. 12 and hasn't played since.

Meeks, the team's top sub last season, missed six games in November with a stress fracture. He returned in mid December, but has since missed three of the last five games with a strained right hip flexor. Patterson missed the Houston game with an ankle injury.

Yet Gillispie said he sees improvement, particularly after the double-overtime win over Vanderbilt and even in the loss to Mississippi State.

"That's by far the two best efforts we've had as far as competition, playing hard, playing smart and playing together," he said. "I think our team is gaining confidence as we go. They've been pretty tough mentally through the ups and downs that we've suffered and endured this season.

"I think we're gaining steam as we go and we'll continue to get better and better as the season progresses."

While its record may indicate a struggling team, Florida is preparing to face the Kentucky of old.

"They are a very good team and they've got a lot of tradition and stuff so that's why people are surprised (about their record)," sophomore forward Dan Werner said. "When you have a new coach you go through a transition. We know they are a very good team."

Bilas said he expects the game to come down to UK's veterans vs. Florida's youth, and whether Kentucky can cure its road woes.

"Kentucky is older and they've got some veterans on their team, but they have not played particularly well on the road," he said. "Most of their success has come at home. I think experience-wise, they've got an advantage, but there's not a lot of depth on that Kentucky team.

"Patrick Patterson is the key. If Florida can keep Patterson from getting the ball and being a force inside, they've got a much better opportunity to win. My sense is that Florida is going to try to speed the game a little bit to make it more of an up and down game so that it's not a game where they just grind it out, throw the ball inside and make it into a halfcourt game."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com For more on ESPN's College GameDay in Gainesville, go to the Gators blog page at tampabay.com.