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October 26, 2007

Gillispie ready to get started at Kentucky

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Billy Gillispie strode into his first SEC Media Day on Thursday about five minutes early.

His name placard wasn't even on the table yet. The other coaches in the same session weren't in the room.

But the new Kentucky coach was ready to go. Just how Wildcats fans want him.

Gillispie, 47, knows the eyes of the Big Blue Nation are upon him. With all due respect to his native state and the one he left to come to Kentucky, he also knows expectations in Lexington are Texas-sized.

His response to those 10-gallon thoughts? Bring 'em on.

"That's where you want to coach," Gillispie said. "I'd much rather coach at a place that expects to win every game than a place where it's OK for you to lose. That's why you coach. You coach to get to a position like this so you do have the expectation to win every single game. That's not being cocky, that's why you coach."

How he coaches is what has gotten Gillispie here, to one of college basketball's most storied programs. As everyone who is worth their Bluegrass already knows, he engineered wondrous turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M before he was hired April 6 to replace Tubby Smith.

He also was an assistant to Bill Self for five seasons, three at Tulsa and two at Illinois. He has nothing but praise for Self, who's now at Kansas, and says he has borrowed liberally from him.

Gillispie has been a head coach for only five years, and his career record stands at 100-58. He never has operated under the microscope that he will at Kentucky, but he says so far so good.

"We haven't lost any games yet, so everything is fantastic," Gillispie said. "It has been fun. I've gotten a chance to meet a lot of new people and see a different way to do things."

Gillispie was introduced as the new coach at a pep rally at Memorial Coliseum that hundreds of UK fans attended. He received on ovation that lasted more than a minute. It's just a little different than things were in El Paso and College Station.

"I'd never been introduced at a pep rally before," Gillispie said. "You hear so many things about the fan base and how passionate they are, and that was definitely a first sign of how much passion they do have and how excited they can become."

Wildcats point guard Ramel Bradley said the energy around Lexington is palpable. "Fans are excited," Bradley said. "They've embraced the new coach. They call him 'Coach G,' too, like we do."

Bradley knows coaching the Wildcats can have its ups and downs. He watched the toll it took on Smith, who resigned under pressure and accepted the coaching job at Minnesota.

"Being the coach here is like being a rock star," Bradley said. "But you're under a microscope, too. When we win it's probably the best job in the world, and when we lose it's probably the toughest job in the world."

It's not a bad year to be a new coach in the SEC East. Florida, the two-time defending national champions, lost its top seven scorers. Vanderbilt lost SEC coaches' player of the year Derrick Byars. South Carolina lost Tre Kelley and Brandon Wallace. Two of Georgia's best players, Mike Mercer and Takais Brown, are serving lengthy suspensions.

Tennessee poses the biggest roadblock in the East. The Vols were a unanimous pick to win the division, with nearly everybody back from last year's Sweet 16 team and the additions of transfers Tyler Smith from Iowa and J.P. Prince from Arizona.

Gillispie said he isn't worried about being the new kid on the block. He said he'll be plenty familiar with the teams in the East.

"Even though you're a new guy you have a good feel for (your opponents) because you have so much tape of them," said Gillispie, who has been known to watch tape into the wee hours of the morning. "You're going to know what they're going to do; they're going to know what you're going to do. It all comes down to who is going to perform the best that night."

Gillispie said no one should expect anything fancy from his team.

"We're plain vanilla, fundamental, and we'll try to be hardnosed," he said. "And another thing I learned from Coach Self: Play hard, play smart, play together."

And get an early start.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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