Gillispie: Season better than expected

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Billy Gillispie sat at the podium after UK’s season-ending loss to Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and told the media he loved his first season as the Cats’ coach.

The 2007-08 season wasn’t an easy one for Gillispie, fraught with the defection of a top recruit, injuries to star players, embarrassing losses and even mild battles with players on his own team.

But the self-described “basketball nut” said his first season was a great experience.

“It was better than I expected. It was fantastic,” Gillispie said. “As far as wins and losses, no, I thought we would win more games. But if you’d told me you were going to have over 40 games missed by really, really, really good players, I would have said, ‘How in the world are we going to make it into the tournament?’ ”

UK fans welcomed Gillispie with open arms in April when the school named him as the successor to former coach Tubby Smith, who left UK to take the same position at Minnesota after 10 years in blue.

Though UK struggled early in the season, Gillispie said the fans were always great to him even at a time when it would have been easy to turn on him. He credited UK’s rabid fan base for helping the team romp to an 8-0 record in Rupp Arena during Southeastern Conference play.

“I’ve not seen a greater effort from a group of fans,” Gillispie said. “No matter what the situation was, even when we weren’t playing well, our fans were awesome to me and they were awesome to these players … I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

“You are a special person if you are associated with Kentucky basketball. For a basketball nut like myself, I don’t think it could get any better.”

Marquette may have ended the Cats’ season on Thursday, but the fun is just beginning in Lexington, Gillispie said.

“Kentucky has every single thing you need to win national championships,” Gillispie said. “It’s been proven over time. They’ve won a lot of them, and hopefully we’ll win some more.”

A&M fans: We thought he’d stay in Texas

Gillispie’s former team, Texas A&M, was also in Anaheim, Calif., for the first round of the tournament over the weekend, and Aggie fans weren’t sure what to think of their former coach nearly a year after he left.

Rock Ashfield, a Texas A&M fan from San Pedro, Calif., said he understood why Gillispie left for UK. But he and other A&M fans thought Gillispie would remain true to his Texas roots, and it pained them to see him go, Ashfield said.

“Everyone gives him credit for what he did and for putting the program on the map,” he said. “Everybody felt and wanted to feel that he was a Texas guy, and that he wouldn’t jump that quick.

“No one can fault him — we just wish he still bled maroon. Good for (UK). We liked him.”

Brad Sinclair, of Sugarland, Texas, is happy with the direction new coach Mark Turgeon is taking Texas A&M, and he doesn’t worry about Gillispie now.

“I never was bitter, frankly just very disappointed,” Sinclair said. “He’s an excellent coach, he did an excellent job, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t there to see it through. That said, if he wanted to move on for what he perceived to be a better job, so be it. I feel good about (Turgeon), and I think we’re heading the right direction.”

Gillispie: Seniors built solid

foundations on and off the court

Gillispie acknowledged how hard it would be to see his two seniors, guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, leave the program, but he also acknowledged that both are prepared for life after college, whether it involves basketball or not.

Both Crawford and Bradley are on schedule to graduate in May.

“You hate to see those guys walking out of here for the last time,” Gillispie said. “You’re really happy that they’re walking out with a great foundation that’s going to give them a chance to be basketball players, which is what they want to do. And they’re going to do it with a degree in their hand.”