by Kevin Faris
Photo by Alex Orlov
When Tubby Smith hopped on a plane and left for Minnesota (and let's be clear on this, he left. He was not fired. He even received a $1 million dollar longevity bonus) one thing I had hoped would happen is that UK basketball fans would once again be reunited (I bet you thought that link would be Peaches and Herb. Sucker).
The last two years of Tubby, years that saw UK go 9-7 in conference with no SEC regular or tournament titles, divided the UK fanbase. Message boards and radio shows were filled with the Pro and Anti Tubby factions. No matter what subject was being discussed, eventually it turned into a Tubby debate. Personally, I was split. I felt something needed to change, but I would have been satisfied with a complete overhaul of the coaching staff. The word on the street is that Tubby resisted when UK suggested this, which is odd because when he skipped town to Minnesota he took none of those assistants with him. In fact, his staff at Minnesota is light years ahead of his previous staff.
Anyway, the point is, I thought a new coach would bring us together in a "Hands Across the Commonwealth" sort of way. A for a few months it did. All the way up until UK lost to Gardner-Webb. Since that point, the UK fanbase has been on a roller coaster ride of doubt. Is Billy G. the right guy? 12-4 in the SEC last year and we think yes. Lose to VMI and get man handled by UNC and we all think no. Beat UT and go 5-0 in the SEC and we love him. Lose 3 in a row and we wonder what Tom Izzo is up to.
The debate on Billy G. has moved from talk radio and the Internet to the more traditional press, as John Clay of the LHL wrote a column on the subject. More or less, he believes it is too soon and that people need to be a little more patient. I believe that as well, but I am among those frustrated enough by the performance of the Cats so far in the Billy G. era. A week ago, my wife asked me why people are mad at Billy G. That was an easy answer: He has odd sub patterns. He plays mind games that don't make sense to fans. He plays lesser talented players based on a very vague definition of "toughness". He seems to have a very smug and arrogant attitude for someone who has not done a lot. He refuses to mix up his defense by including any zone. She then asked me what he does well. That took me a little longer. After a moment or two of thinking, here are what I would call Billy G.'s strengths.
1. If you are willing to be pushed, he will push you to be your best. Proof: Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford went from talented, but inconsistent to First Team All-SEC performers. Michael Porter has gone from horrible to average, which is probably his ceiling at this level. Jodie Meeks was an average ranked recruit who is now a POY candidate. Obviously, not all of this is from the coach. The players and their families deserve part of the credit, but these players are not examples of the "toughness" of which Billy G. often speaks.
2. Recruiting. Billy G. came into the job described as a tireless and talented recruiter. This was a breath of fresh air to UK fans. So far, his recruiting has been very good, but not quite great. However, very good is an improvement on Tubby's last few year. The Perry/Thomas/Woo class and the ghost class that is now just Jared Carter are the two big reasons for UK's struggle the past four years. A top level college basketball teams needs solid/very good classes year in and year out to be competitive. Next year, UK will have four solid classes of players. Unlike a lot of UK fans, I am not going to judge UK commitments that are still in high school, but while the focus has been on those who are struggling or do not appear to be UK caliber, no focus is being put on guys like Dominique Ferguson who is a Top 10 player in his class.
3. Potential. I know this might seem like a stretch to list as a strength, but I think UK fans often forget that Billy G. has only been a head coach for seven years. I believe he is still growing and still learning. Maybe this is just hope, but I think he will be a better coach in a few years than he is now.
Today, in a few hours, UK will take on the big orange from our dreaded enemy to the south. Currently UK, USC-E, UF, and UT are all tied at 7-4 in the SEC East. A win today would sweep the Vols, place UK in position to hopefully take the SEC East title, and keep the fans of Billy G. happy. A loss today splits the season series, puts UK in a must win position heading into their final 4 games, and guarantees those who don't like Billy G. will be heard loud and clear.