LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -It was a battle of wills the Kentucky players soon learned they were never going to win.
For weeks, as the Wildcats slogged through an uninspired nonconference schedule, they kept expecting first year coach Billy Gillispie to loosen up. Eventually, they figured, Gillispie would crack a smile. Eventually, they were sure, Gillispie would open his perpetually folded arms and give the Wildcats a big ol' hug, hand the ball to guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley and tell them to ``go.''
But that's not ``Billy Ball.'' Never has been. Gillispie built his resume by putting together physical, determined squads that made up for in grit what they lacked in finesse.
Ask Gillispie about his coaching philosophy, and he's typically blunt.
``Play hard, play smart, play together,'' Gillispie said while shrugging his shoulders. ``It's easier said than done.''
It is ever.
It wasn't until the Wildcats figured out that if anybody was going to change, it was going to be them and not their coach, that they began to turn their season around.
``From the start of the regular season we could still be going in that direction (against Gillispie), we could still be going toward losses instead of piling up wins and trying to do something better,'' forward Perry Stevenson said.
Gillispie prefers to play coach instead of psychiatrist, and isn't ready to say he's built a team in his image. Though he's not arguing with the results.
``I think that you should play basketball very intently,'' Gillispie said. ``Whether that's your personality or not, I don't know, but I really believe you should play intently and I really believe we're getting closer to playing with intensity all the time.''
Now the team that was left for dead after losses to Gardner-Webb, San Diego and No. 18 Vanderbilt finds itself in the thick of the SEC East race.
As difficult as Gillispie's first year at the home of college basketball's winningest program has been, if Kentucky (15-10, 9-3) beats struggling Ole Miss (18-8, 4-8) on Wednesday, the Wildcats will have double-digit conference wins for the first time in three seasons and an NCAA tournament resume that doesn't look quite as bleak as it did on New Year's Day.
Their secret really is no secret. The players say they're just trying to do whatever is necessary to placate their tightlipped, constantly intense head coach.
``He's a tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar kind of person and we're just trying to mimic that,'' Stevenson said.
They've done a pretty good job over the past six weeks.
Though hardly dominant - Kentucky's average margin of victory in conference play is just 5.8 points - the Wildcats have won eight of their past nine games by keeping focus and minimizing mistakes down the stretch.
``That's what we live for,'' guard Derrick Jasper said. ``We know if we've got 5 minutes left and it's close, then we've got a shot.''
It's not always pretty. These Wildcats are a far cry from the 3-point happy, high-flying glory years of Rick Pitino. Kentucky is on pace to average less than 70 points for just the third time in 20 years as Gillispie has chosen to play a deliberate offensive style intended to slow the game down so he can keep his top players fresh.
The Wildcats are sure there's a breakout offensive game in there somewhere, but at this point in the season, there's no use waiting for it. Even Gillispie admits it might not happen until next year, when his players have had more time to adjust to his system.
``The plays may be the same, but the way you play may be different,'' Gillispie said.
For now, the plays will run through Bradley and Crawford. After some initial skirmishes with Gillispie that left Crawford in his new coach's doghouse, he and Bradley have formed the backbone of a team that has become relentless in the decisive moments.
The duo scored 15 of Kentucky's final 18 points during Saturday's 63-58 win over Arkansas that kept the Wildcats undefeated at Rupp Arena in SEC play and second behind No. 1 Tennessee in the SEC East.
``That's just senior leadership,'' Stevenson said. ``Most of the time they're just making big plays and everybody else is just a part of that.''
It's those leaders that have helped the team come around on its new coach. Crawford and Gillispie walked off the floor together after beating Arkansas, something that seemed unimaginable three months ago. That was before the detente that comes with winning, a detente Gillispie never doubted would happen once the players bought into what he was selling.
``When you talk about love relationships, it doesn't happen overnight,'' Gillispie said. ``It's something that's really worth having. It takes a little time and it's something we've always been good at developing.''

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