TAMPA — The victory was the team's 20th of the season. Some would characterize that as an achievement. Others might call it a milestone. Around Kentucky, it is known as an embarrassment.
Such is life at one of the most demanding basketball programs on the planet. The Wildcats beat Mississippi 71-58 Thursday afternoon, broke a four-game losing streak, kept their hopes alive for an NCAA Tournament bid, advanced to the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament and answered questions about angry fans and disappointing results.
"That's why you come to Kentucky and other places like this. The fans expect a lot out of you, and the coaches expect even more," said junior Perry Stevenson. "Our fans are great. They love us, they support us, they come out everywhere to watch us. So we have to expect the bad that comes along with the good."
And for Kentucky, this is bad. Real bad.
Without the automatic invitation that goes along with winning the SEC tournament, or without at least a run to the championship game Sunday, the Wildcats (20-12) will more than likely miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. This team already is the first in Kentucky history to lose the last four games of a regular season, and the Wildcats have also lost 12 games or more for four consecutive seasons for the first time in the program's history.
In other words, the blue bloods are antsy in Lexington. And that means coach Billy Gillispie is wondering if anyone in Kentucky is familiar with the concept of a honeymoon period.
Two years into his reign, Gillispie is already seeing polls about his job status. His athletic director is telling ESPN that the coach needs to make some adjustments, and even the university president sounds a bit skeptical.
Now, in the best of times, nobody would care much that Gillispie can be a bit snotty. That he isn't as slick as Rick Pitino or as engaging as Billy Donovan. But when you are one-and-done in your first year in the NCAA Tournament, and may not even make it in your second year, the folks in the bleachers seem to fixate on those personality flaws.
And so, even before loosening his tie after Thursday's victory, Gillispie was fielding queries about his popularity.
"If you win all of your games, you'll be more of a celebrity. I didn't come here to be a celebrity; I came here to win basketball games. I appreciate all of the fans' passion and all of those kind of things. Like I said many times before, our No. 1 thing is to coach the team, and our No. 2 thing is to recruit, and those are very, very, very close. Those are the main things we need to do to get this program back to where it needs to be.
"I like being out in the public. I've been very, very lucky and fortunate to make a lot of friends in the Kentucky area. But you can be as public as you want to be and not win enough games, it makes no difference."
It might be easier if Gillispie could blame everything on predecessor Tubby Smith, except Gillispie brought in a majority of the players on the roster. And it might be easier if the Wildcats hadn't begun the season 16-4 before collapsing down the stretch.
"If we were overachieving all year and playing really well to get to 20 wins, that would be a different thing," said junior guard Michael Porter. "But we know we can play a lot better than we have been playing. We all came here for a reason. We expect more. The fans expect more. And this isn't good enough."
Of course, this can all be rectified. A victory this afternoon against LSU, the West Division's top seed, puts the Wildcats halfway to their first SEC tournament title since 2004. It would also dramatically increase their still-slim chances for an NCAA at-large berth.
And it might buy Gillispie some breathing room in that postseason sit-down with the athletic director.
"What I want to do is win every single game. And if we haven't won every single game, then I consider that to be my fault," Gillispie said. "I'm not looking for excuses; I don't want to make excuses. There are some obvious things, and you can choose to look those, or you can choose not to look those, it doesn't make any difference.
"All we're going to do … is try to win our next game and try to advance."
Which, at Kentucky, is all that matters.