Gillispie’s focus on Vandy, not postseason

Head coach Billy Gillispie doesn’t care about the Southeastern Conference standings. He’s not thinking about the fact that the Cats are in sole possession of second place in the SEC East division, just one game behind Tennessee. And he isn’t worrying if his team has put itself back into consideration for an NCAA Tournament bid.

All the first-year UK coach is thinking about is Vanderbilt, which the Cats play tonight in Nashville.

“I couldn’t tell you the exact order of the teams in our league right now, ‘cause what difference does it make?” Gillispie said. “The team that’s No. 1 for us tomorrow night is Vandy. The next game, it’s going to be LSU.”

“You play as hard as you can and try to get better every single day, and you add them up at the end and see where you are and hopefully you get to continue playing,” he said

The Cats are riding a five-game winning streak, their longest since 2006, and have pundits around the country arguing about what it might take for them to get back into the NCAA Tournament picture.

On the surface, tonight’s matchup with No. 24 Vanderbilt appears to be a chance for UK to add another quality win to its already improving tournament resume.

But for Gillispie’s team, each game is a tournament in itself. After UK’s win over Alabama on Saturday, senior guard Joe Crawford said the Cats have viewed the SEC season as a series of one-game tournaments all along. Win, and they stay alive. Lose, and the outlook for the season keeps getting bleaker.

Just five games ago, the outlook seemed pretty bleak. UK had dropped two straight to Mississippi State and Florida and were 1-2 in the SEC. After five straight wins, UK is 6-2 in the conference, 12-9 overall and three games over .500 for the first time since Nov. 27.

Just because the Cats have found recent success, Gillispie doesn’t want UK to start looking ahead to what could happen if the Cats finish the conference season as strong as they’ve started it.

“One at a time, eight times,” Gillispie said of the eight games left. “That’s what I want them to believe. No matter who you’re playing against, it’s the most important game you’ve ever played. They’re playing like they have a great sense of urgency right now.”

UK’s season began its turnaround against the Commodores, a thrilling 79-73 double-overtime win at Rupp Arena on Jan. 12.

At the time, Vanderbilt was 16-0 and ranked No. 13 in the country, but since the loss to UK, the ‘Dores have struggled. Vandy lost four of its first six SEC games but is currently on a three-game winning streak of its own.

Vandy played six of its first nine SEC games on the road, but despite the ‘Dores’ 5-4 conference record, Gillispie said they’re still playing as well as they did to start the season.

“They came out of that in really good fashion,” Gillispie said. “Even though some people think, ‘Well, maybe they’ve struggled,’ they haven’t struggled. They’ve just had six out of nine on the road and that’s a very tough stretch to go through.”

With first place Tennessee playing at SEC West leader Arkansas tomorrow, a win in Nashville could move the Cats within a half-game of the Volunteers’ lead in the East and push the Cats even closer to earning a first round bye in the SEC Tournament, a crucial day off for a team that might have to win the tournament to earn an NCAA bid.

But Gillispie isn’t worried about the SEC standings right now. He’s got Nashville on his mind.