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March 18, 2008

Kentucky Wildcats: It’s been a storybook season for the Cats. All that’s left now is the ending

Senior Ramel Bradley: photo courtesy UK Athletic Dept Senior Ramel Bradley (3) has carried UK this season along with Joe Crawford.Ramel Bradley hasn’t found an end to his novel yet, but he still has time. Kentucky received its 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid Sunday night, completing a journey that took the Cats through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, all in one season.Thanks to that bid, which pits 11th-seeded UK against 6th seed Marquette in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, Bradley is closer to the ending he is looking for.“Coach always told us that he wanted to have a great story,” Bradley said just hours after learning that freshman sensation Patrick Patterson was out for the season with an ankle injury. “We didn’t start off the way we should have, but he always believed in us and told us the story was going to be a great story at the end of the year.”But the great story wasn’t one Bradley thought he’d write back in October. The week before the Wildcats celebrated the beginning of the season at Big Blue Madness, Bradley was overflowing with confidence, even if he was quietly plagued by uncertainty. UK’s season seems like a cheesy Disney script: talented team, new coach, plenty of expectations. Everything goes wrong before everything gets right.It had all the elements of a good (read: sentimental) sports movie: Problems between players and the coach? Check. A shaky start? Uh-huh. Devastating injuries? Present. And finally, the improbable turnaround. Checkmate.When Gillispie was hired, he was hailed as the Messiah of Kentucky basketball. He’d turned around Texas-El Paso and Texas A&M. Compared to those Empire State Building-sized construction sites, returning UK to glory was like building a tree house. But the Wildcats got off slow, and some fans began questioning the coach just a few games into his first season. The Wildcats fell to Gardner-Webb in the second round of the 2k Sports College Hoops Classic, wiping their chance to play at Madison Square Garden and eliciting harsh questions from a fan base that wasn’t ready to lose to anyone, much less to a no-name school from a no-name conference.And the defeats didn’t stop.There was the home loss to San Diego, another mid-major. UK blew a sizable second-half lead and fell to Alabama-Birmingham, and lost to Houston after falling way behind early. There were losses to rivals Indiana, North Carolina and Louisville, none of which were easy to stomach for a fan base growing restless.The early season struggles were abetted by injuries to key players. Sophomore guard Derrick Jasper, lauded by Gillispie before the season for his ability to control games, was struggling to get back to the court after off-season knee surgery. Sophomore guard Jodie Meeks suffered a stress fracture in his pelvis and a hip flexor, and he’s still not playing.Perry Stevenson (21): photo courtesy UK Athletic Dept Since an injury to center Patrick Patterson, sophomore Perry Stevenson (21) has come on strong to fill the void.There was more. The players, particularly senior guard Joe Crawford, weren’t all getting along with the coach. Crawford and Gillispie weren’t fighting — they found it difficult to cooperate. Crawford said he wasn’t sure what his coach wanted: After a 32-point outburst against Texas Southern, his performance was met with a shrug from Gillispie, and a message that Crawford still needed to improve on defense and become a better leader.At one point, Crawford even thought worse.“I thought he hated me,” Crawford said. “He told me. He used to say it. I didn’t understand his sense of humor back then.”It wasn’t just Crawford. Freshman guard Alex Legion, a highly touted recruit, bolted after six games. He decided to transfer to Illinois despite playing 17 minutes and averaging more than six points per game, and he cited difficulties with Gillispie as one of the main reasons.Just days after the turn of the year, the Wildcats stood 6-7, and a sub-.500 season seemed dangerously possible. Making the NIT seemed iffy. The NCAA tournament, impossible.This is the part of the novel where the story begins to change.Crawford and Gillispie began getting along as Crawford adjusted to his coach’s often dry humor and personality, and the Cats came up with their first positive shock of the season: a 72-66 double overtime win over 13th-ranked Vanderbilt. Bradley and Crawford put the team on their backs, unable to fathom the thought of missing the NCAA tournament in their senior year. With the help of freshman center Patterson, the duo had the Cats looking up.“All the things that they’ve done, that’s what seniors are supposed to do,” Gillispie said Sunday. “But until you have to do it, sometimes you don’t.”Then Tennessee came to Lexington riding high, the No. 3 team in the country and consensus favorite to run over the Southeastern Conference. And then the Volunteers lost. The season was never the same, at least for the team that emerged victorious that January night.This is the part of the novel where it looks like the turnaround is in full swing. But it wasn’t. Not yet. Adversity still followed UK. After a five-game winning streak, the Cats were blown out by 41 points at Vanderbilt. UK’s NCAA tournament hopes, already slim, appeared dashed. Yet again, Kentucky rebounded. The Wildcats won four games in a row. The turnaround was back on track — miraculous, it seemed. The Cats were 10-3 in the SEC, squarely in second place in the East division. And more improbable, a rematch with top-ranked Tennessee loomed, with first place in the conference on the line.This is the part of the novel that should be the climax. Instead, another plot twist: Patterson went to the team doctor for a sore ankle and learned he had a stress fracture. The announcement was shocking: Patterson done for the season. The radio shows buzzed with fans crying that the season was over. Yet again, the Cats’ NCAA tournament hopes appeared to be gone.This is the part where there’s a sad ending. But UK rebounded again, nearly beating Tennessee without Patterson and winning the final two games of the regular season, including a rousing Senior Day defeat of Florida. The whole thing brought tears to Gillispie’s eyes, as he stood at center court with Crawford and Bradley before the game and again after, when he tried to tell the crowd how much the duo meant to him in his one season as their coach. Then came a truly strange visit to “Catlanta,” where most UK fans, accustomed to taking over that southern city, instead had to find TVs to watch the team lose in overtime to Georgia, the SEC’s team of destiny. Still, on Sunday, the NCAA tournament Selection Committee made it official. The Cats are in.And that’s where the novel stands now. UK has overcome the problems — internal and external — to take fans on an excellent and entertaining ride through the season. Though few expect them to do much in the tournament, the role of odds-beater — once uncharacteristic in Lexington — is one UK has become accustomed to playing. So how will Bradley’s novel end? Is it “Hoosiers,” where the team goes all the way? Or is it “Friday Night Lights,” where the team battles through adversity only to come up just short? To hear his coach tell it, Bradley’s story already has a storybook ending.“I’m really proud,” Gillispie said, holding back tears Sunday. “I’ve been proud of every single team I’ve ever had … but this team, I’ve never seen a tougher team. “To be around young people, that they learn a great life lesson this year with our team, that anything can be achieved if you stick together, you know who you’re sticking with, and you get on the same page and start rowing that boat in the same direction. No matter what those obstacles are in front of you, you can overcome them.”It’s a story of life lessons learned. Sounds like any good sports story. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com