UK playing its best basketball of the year

Billy Gillispie can hear it. The UK players hear it. And if you were in attendance at Rupp Arena on Saturday, you heard it, and saw it too: the rebirth of a basketball team.

Since the start of his tenure at UK, Gillispie has preached that the transition in coaching philosophies wasn’t always going to be easy for the players — or the fans — to watch. A 7-9 start and multiple bewildering losses to teams like Gardner-Webb and San Diego can certainly attest to that.

But after upsetting Tennessee on Tuesday and then outlasting South Carolina on Saturday, it’s clear that the Cats are finally buying into Gillispie’s philosophy. The first-year UK head coach has heard the turnaround coming for weeks in the Cats’ newfound approach at practice.

“You can hear a team that really practices well because they’re talking and they’re moving,” Gillispie said. “They’re really approaching things and embracing things in the right way, and they’ve been doing that for a good while now.”

The culmination has been the Cats’ best basketball of the season. Granted, Saturday’s win was against a 9-10 USC team, and maybe a two-game winning streak isn’t quite the renaissance of UK basketball.

Still, it gave UK its first back-to-back wins since the end of November. And as bad as the Gamecocks have been in recent years, they’re a feisty team on the rise that doesn’t back down from anybody.

Look no farther than their floor general Devan Downey. The sophomore point guard — listed at a generous 5-foot-9 — ran circles around the UK defense all afternoon. Downey scored a team-high 24 points for the Gamecocks and took the fight to the Cats. Every time they needed a basket or a key steal, it was No. 2 coming up with the play.

As good as Downey was, UK’s Ramel Bradley was better.

With the minutes Bradley has been playing the last eight games, you’d think the senior guard would start to wear down. Wrong. With every tick off the clock this season, Bradley has gotten better. For the first time in five games, Bradley got a minute’s rest against the Vols. Against the Gamecocks he didn’t smell the bench all day. The end result: his second career double-double.

But for every point, rebound or minute he logs — he recorded 26 points and 10 boards in 40 minutes of play Saturday — it’s Bradley’s leadership that has been the difference. When UK fell behind in the second half, Bradley would pick the Cats up with a tough drive to the basket or a dagger from behind the arc. And when the game tightened up in the final minutes, Bradley took control, scoring seven of the final nine UK points.

“He’s showing his colors right now,” freshman forward Patrick Patterson said. “He is a leader out there, and he’s taken it upon himself (at the end of games).”

Said USC coach Dave Odom: “When the game is on the line, (Bradley’s) as good as there is.”

And as Bradley continues to pave the path to success, his teammates will continue to follow it. They did again Saturday with huge performances from Patterson, Jodie Meeks, Derrick Jasper and even Perry Stevenson. With the way the Cats played on Saturday, it was easy to forget that injured guard Joe Crawford wasn’t even playing.

While it is to hard to forget UK’s record and early season blemishes, the Cats are playing like an NCAA Tournament team. Barring an unbelievable finish, they aren’t going to make it the Big Dance, but you can’t help but get excited at the future of this team. The 23,996 fans at Rupp Arena echoed that sentiment loud and clear Saturday with one of the rowdiest crowds all year.

As the fans shook the rafters with their approval, the rest of college basketball couldn’t help but hear. They heard the possible awakening of a basketball giant quickly finding its groove, and the sound of a team that is certain to make some noise down the homestretch of the season.

Sports editor Eric Lindsey is a journalism senior. E-mail [email protected].