Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Look Back at Kentucky's 2007-2008 Season

With their loss in the opening round of the NCAA tournament to Marquette, the Kentucky Wildcats’ frustrating season is finally over. In his first year as head coach, Billy Gillispie led UK to a disappointing 18-13 season. I have been fairly unhappy with Gillispie throughout the season, and made those feelings pretty clear with my last blog post. Some responses I got to that post, however, did cause me to stop and think a little bit, and I believe I have changed my opinion at least somewhat. I suppose next year’s results will probably go a long way toward either solidifying my impression of Gillispie as a clown, or proving me wrong. I hope I am proven wrong.

Either way, for posterity’s sake, and just to wallow in self-pity for a few moments, let’s take a look at some of the achievements Gillispie’s Wildcats attained this year.

With a final record of 18-13 – only 5 games above .500 – UK failed to win 22 or more games for the first time since the 1989-1990 season, which was during the probation era. Not counting the probation years, you have to go back to the 1986-1987 season to find the last time a non-probation UK team won less than 22 games. That year, the Wildcats went 18-11.

Kentucky’s winning percentage this year was .581. You have to go back to the 1984-1985 season to find the last time a non-probation UK team had a winning percentage that low. In that year, UK’s record was identical to this year’s record – 18-13. Significantly, however, the 1984-1985 season was Joe B. Hall’s last year before retirement. Furthermore, Joe B. Hall’s Wildcats made it to the Sweet 16 that year in the NCAA tournament. Most significantly, the last time a non-probation UK team had a lower winning percentage than this year’s team, you have to go back 35 years to the 1973-1974 team!

As I mentioned above, UK lost in the opening round of the NCAA tournament this year. That hasn’t happened since 1987 – 21 years and 18 tournaments. Kentucky’s 11 seed in the tournament was also the first time since 1987 that they have been below an 8 seed.

The worst part of Kentucky’s season this year occurred in the first few months of the season, when they lost games to several minor and mid-major schools like San Diego, Houston, and Gardner-Webb. At one point in mid-January, Kentucky was an embarrassing 7-9. I have scoured through Kentucky basketball records, and if my calculations are correct (and I am pretty certain they are), this marked the first time since before Adolph Rupp began coaching the team in 1930 that Kentucky had been 2 games under .500 after 16 games. This includes the probation era of 1989-1991, and even includes the disastrous year of 1989 where Kentucky’s final record was 13-19. That year, they didn’t suffer their total collapse until the end of the season, and were 8-8 after 16 games.

In the 1926-1927 season, Kentucky played only 16 games all season, and finished 3-13. That was the last time Kentucky was worse than 7-9 after 16 games.

In Adolph Rupp’s first season as Kentucky coach, he went 15-3. In Joe B. Hall’s first season as Kentucky coach, he went 20-8. In Eddie Sutton’s first season, he went 32-4. Rick Pitino’s first season occurred during the probation era, but he still coached them to a 14-14 record. The following year, he went 22-6. In Tubby Smith’s first season as head coach, he went 35-4 and, of course, won a national championship.

The above accounts for every Kentucky coach in the modern era. Compare those first seasons with Gillispie’s mediocre 18-13. And you cannot simply blame this on Gillispie having to take over a poor Tubby Smith team. This same team last year won 22 games under Tubby. By way of comparison, when Eddie Sutton took over at UK in 1985, they had gone 18-13 the previous season, and, as stated above, in Sutton’s first season, he won 32 games and took the team to the Elite Eight (where they lost a heartbreaker to LSU – I can still remember, as an 11-year old, screaming at the referees during that game and being bitterly angry and upset when it was over). Thus, in the past, new Kentucky coaches have inherited weaker teams and still produced a solid season.

As I have said already, I made my views on Gillispie clear in my previous blog post, and have somewhat changed my stance since then as a result of several reader comments. Gillispie did have a fine record in a fairly solid SEC this year, and he also had to deal with serious injuries to several top players. Still, those injuries did not occur until after the disastrous losses to Gardner-Webb and several others. The team, under Gillispie, simply started off disturbingly flat. And not just flat – as illustrated by the statistics above, they started off more abysmally than any Kentucky team since the 1920’s! Not since the 1920's, before Adolph Rupp, has any Kentucky team sat on a record as bad as 7-9 to start a season, including the disastrous probation years. Think about that for a minute!

Nevertheless, I am going to give Gillispie the benefit of the doubt, and throw my support behind him for another season (I know that takes a great weight off his shoulders). The college basketball landscape of today is vastly different than it was in the past. I think it is fair to say that the parity among Division I college basketball teams today is much better than it was even 25 or 30 years ago. So perhaps it is not entirely fair to compare Gillispie to coaches and teams who were playing in different eras and under different circumstances – circumstances that allowed it to be easier to maintain dominance. Today, the players are better, and there are a lot more good players coming out of high school, making recruiting much more competitive. As such, it is difficult to maintain a consistently superior program year in and year out. However, some teams have managed to do it, most notably Duke. Of course, it is for this very reason that so many fans were unhappy with Tubby Smith. Kentucky was still a strong program under Smith, but they were not the dominant force and intimidating team year in and year out that Duke was and continues to be. Kentucky, despite its strong program, seemed somehow “beatable” under Tubby Smith. I almost have to wonder if Tubby’s unpopularity with the fans was not somehow directly related to Duke’s continued dominance. If Duke had not continued, over the last 10 seasons, to dominate year in and year out, I wonder if the fans would have been so hard on Tubby. Either way, the reason I am so disappointed this year is because things have not gotten better with Gillispie. Instead, they have only gotten worse – much worse. Still, it is only his first season.

We’ll watch and see what happens next year. If Gillispie wins 25 games and goes deep into the NCAA tournament, I will eat my words. But if not, well…

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