What's Next for Kentucky Basketball?

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What's Next for Kentucky Basketball?
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

With Kentucky bowing out of the NIT last night, the SEC’s basketball season is officially over. In all honesty, it couldn’t come soon enough. I love college basketball, but from a Rebel standpoint, this was obviously not the season we had hoped for, both on and off the court.

The silver lining—of course—was the emergence of freshmen Terrico White and Murphy Holloway when thrust into more minutes than expected due to the rash of injuries.

It also quite possibly marked the end of the Billy Gillispie era in Lexington, which was doomed to fail from the beginning. He never jelled with the fan base or administration there.

His run-in with Jeannine Edwards in Oxford earlier this year was childish at best, and his attempt to run off the floor without shaking Darrin Horn’s hand after a home loss to South Carolina (skip to 4:00) was inexcusable.

I’m not typically a proponent of axing a guy after just two seasons, but it’s hard to make the argument that things will be any better in the foreseeable future as long as Gillispie is there.

Currently, the top three rumored choices for Gillispie’s replacement are Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Memphis’ John Calipari, and Florida’s Billy Donovan. I’ll go ahead and say that Izzo won’t be making the move to Lexington.

He’s got the most impressive resume of the three—eight Sweet 16s in the last 12 years, four Final Fours, and National Title—but he’s MSU through and through, having been there since 1983, including 15 years as head coach. He’ll retire in East Lansing.

That leaves Donovan and Calipari. Depending on which ‘Cat fan you ask, you’ll get a different answer as to which they’d rather have. Donovan is the one with the rings, but Calipari is the hotter commodity now, with three straight Elite Eight appearances, with a chance to make it four with a win tonight.

He also has connections with the top two unsigned high-school prospects in the country that may follow him if he does bolt for UK.

While Florida has been just average the last few years, Donovan has proven that he can win in Gainesville. The Gators have really just been lacking an enforcer inside the last 2 seasons to complement Nick Calathes and company.

Al Horford didn’t get the attention (until NBA draft time) that Joaquim Noah, Corey Brewer, and Taurean Green, but his play underneath the basket was key to the Gators’ title runs.

I know Kentucky would throw money at him, but the Florida program is his. I’m not sure he would leave Gainesville for the pressure of Lexington.

Which brings us to Calipari. You gotta figure he’s the ‘Cats’ No. 1 choice, based on the program he’s built at Memphis.

Question his recruiting tactics (World Wide Wes), question the level of talent they face after the turn of the calendar (C-USA has failed to put a second team in the NCAA Tourney for four straight seasons), but there’s no question that he brings energy and a presence to a school, which UK hasn’t had since Pitino roamed the sidelines.

Tubby Smith is one of the really good guys in the coaching business and certainly didn’t deserve the treatment he got in Lexington, but he’s not a commanding figure; Calipari is. And has the ego to handle the unrealistic expectations that Kentucky fans have.

Now whether or not he’d leave Memphis is another story. Kentucky obviously has a much richer tradition than Memphis does, but even in a down year like this, the SEC is still stronger than CUSA is.

Calipari has never coached in a major conference and has padded his W-L record in the A10 and CUSA. He would no doubt win at Kentucky, but certainly not at the ridiculous rates he has at his previous stops.

As much as he clamors for respect at Memphis, as long as he continues to beat up the little guys 16 games a year, it’s just not going to come. While I tend to give him more credit than some, until he proves himself in one of the BCS conferences, right or wrong, there will always be doubters.

He’s compensated extremely well now, but Memphis doesn’t have the budget that Kentucky does. If they decide that he’s their guy, you can bet Mitch Barnhart will put together something with a base of $3.5M+ as well as plenty of incentives.

Of course, this may all be moot if the ‘Cats sense they won’t be able to get Izzo, Donovan, or Calipari, or they decide to give Gillispie another season. I just can’t see that scenario.

Despite their recent mediocrity (by their standards) Kentucky is the flagship basketball program in the conference. Florida has been better lately, but when you think SEC basketball, Rupp and Pitino are some of the first names that come to mind.

When the Wildcats struggle, it brings down the perception of the league as a whole.

I fully expect there to be a new head coach in Lexington next season. Even if the “Big Three” turn them down, Anthony Grant and Travis Ford are certainly viable options as well.

As a conference, we need The Big Blue to be good again. Sure it’ll bring out the crazies, but it will also be a major step toward bringing SEC basketball back to relevancy.

***UPDATE***
Fantastic piece by Pat Forde

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