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BILLY GILLISPIE WAS RECRUITING AT A high school tournament in Dallas last April 5 when, at around 6 p.m., he listened to a voice mail from Bill Byrne, his athletic director at Texas A&M, who was reporting that Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart had just asked Byrne for permission to interview Gillispie for UK's coaching vacancy. A few hours later a private plane sent by Barnhart arrived in Dallas, where it whisked Gillispie back to Lexington for a late-night meeting with Barnhart and an early-morning sit-down with university president Lee T. Todd Jr. On the afternoon of April 6, less than 24 hours after hearing Byrne's voice mail, Gillispie was introduced as the 21st head coach in the glorious history of Kentucky basketball. "The only reason I even had a suit with me was because I was flying to Los Angeles that night to be with [ Texas A&M guard] Acie Law at the Wooden Award ceremony," Gillispie says. "It happened fast, but that's the way things happen these days."
Now Kentucky's famously rabid fans are hoping that Gillispie, who engineered rapid turnarounds during his previous stints at UTEP and Texas A&M, can likewise jump-start their beloved Wildcats. True, the situation Gillispie inherited from Tubby Smith is not nearly as dire as the ones at his previous stops, but the standards he faces are also much loftier. During Smith's 10 years in Lexington, Kentucky won a national championship in 1998 and never ended the season before the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats, however, have now gone nine years since their last Final Four—the longest drought in team history. The tension brought about by the perception that the program was underachieving finally led Smith to bolt unexpectedly for Minnesota in March. "The expectations are higher here than anywhere else in the country," says 6'2" senior point guard Ramel Bradley, "and I wouldn't have it any other way."
It didn't take long for the new man in town to raise the bar. Though almost all of the top high school prospects typically sign national letters of intent in November, Gillispie managed to snag not one but two premier recruits in May: Alex Legion, a sharpshooting 6'4" guard from Detroit who originally committed to Michigan, and Patrick Patterson, a 6'9" power forward from Huntington, W.Va., who was named a McDonald's All-American. (Two other players, forward A.J. Stewart and center Morakinyo Williams had been signed by Smith.) Getting Patterson was especially critical, because the Wildcats lost four frontcourt players from last year's 22-12 team, including starters Randolph Morris and Bobby Perry, who combined for 24.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. It also didn't hurt that Patterson chose Kentucky over Florida and Duke, two powerhouse programs that frequently beat out UK for prospects during the Tubby era.
"I think Patrick is going to be a very productive player for us," Gillispie says. "He'll definitely get a chance to put his hands on the ball, and he'll make some plays you can't coach. He has great intelligence and character, so he has the ability to be a great leader from Day One."
Still, Gillispie is quick to point out that a team is only as good as its returning players. Though Kentucky will be thin up front (the most experienced big man is 6'9" sophomore Perry Stevenson, who averaged 10.0 minutes and 2.9 points last season), the Cats are flush with veteran talent on the perimeter. Seniors Bradley and Joe Crawford and 6'6" sophomore Derrick Jasper started a combined 93 out of a possible 102 games last season, while 6'4" sophomore Jodie Meeks averaged 8.7 points in his role as sixth man. Throw in Legion, and Gillispie has the horses to run the up-tempo attack that spearheaded Texas A&M to a 27-7 record last year and a berth in the Sweet 16.
If the UK players want to run, however, they will first have to prove to their coach that they have the legs to do it. To that end, Gillispie instituted thrice-weekly early-morning conditioning runs over the summer that were administered by strength coach Todd Forcier. But three players—Crawford, Jasper and junior Jared Carter—have been limited in their conditioning work due to knee and shoulder injuries. All are expected to be at full strength by the end of October.
Bradley, who has been injury-free, put himself through additional running work during the off-season. "I've always hated running. I don't know how track stars do it," Bradley says. "I'm just trying to get my mind-set to the point where I love to run. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm trying."
In addition Bradley spent more time working on his outside shooting than in any previous off-season. Gillispie gave him videotapes of Law, as well as of NBA guards Baron Davis and Chauncey Billups, so Bradley can study how they score off a screen-and-roll. The extra efforts underscore the urgency that both Bradley and Crawford feel as they approach their final college season. "They both want to have basketball careers, so they're going to do everything they can to make sure that happens," Gillispie says. "The best way to do that is for us to have a great season."
While Gillispie says he isn't sure what type of offense he'll deploy, he is intent on using the stout man-to-man defense that has been the hallmark of his previous teams. (Last year the Aggies were ranked second in the nation in field goal percentage defense and 15th in scoring defense.) It has also been imperative for him to instill a culture of discipline in the Kentucky program. "When we had our first meeting with him, he kind of smiled and said he wasn't going to take any crap," Crawford says. "He started off light, but then real quickly we found out he was all business." After that each player was required every day to visit the basketball office, where he had to sign in and meet with Gillispie or one of his assistants.
Not for nothing was Gillispie the first man in college basketball history to coach the nation's most improved team in consecutive seasons ( UTEP and Texas A&M in 2004 and '05, respectively). With a cupboard full of quality players and a powerful brand to take onto the recruiting trail, Gillispie has every reason to believe that his success will continue. "There are so many great things in place here, so much tradition and fan support," he says. "But you don't have a lot of time to just sit back and say, 'Hey, I'm the coach at Kentucky.' I've got a job to do, and I don't have any time to waste."