NIT Central: Kentucky - Creighton Preview

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Eric Lindsey, UKAA Media Relations

Before Kentucky can think about the Road to the Big Apple, it will have to conquer the Road to Omaha.

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Collegiate baseball comparisons aside, if the Wildcats (21-13) want to take the next step to New York City for the National Invitation Tournament championship, they'll have to defeat the Creighton Bluejays (27-7) on Monday at 7 p.m. in Omaha, Neb., in the second round of the NIT.

Creighton, a No. 1 seed, is fresh off a dramatic 73-71 win over Bowling Green on Wednesday night in the first round of the NIT. Creighton trailed most of the way, but a rally with just under five minutes to go and a missed 3-pointer from Bowling Green in the final seconds pushed the Bluejays to the second round.

Creighton could have very well been in the NCAA Tournament after a dominant regular season. Behind the play of guards Booker Woodfox (15.7 ppg) and P'Allen Stinnet (12.4 ppg), the Bluejays clinched a share of the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title. Yet on Selection Sunday, the Bluejays were left out of the Big Dance and forced to refocus their goals on an NIT Championship.

Kentucky knows the feeling all too well.

After 17 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, UK is playing in its first NIT since 1979. There is little doubt that Kentucky would rather be in the NCAA Tournament - UK Coach Billy Gillispie has said so multiple times - but the Wildcats looked like a team that has put a disappointing regular season behind them Tuesday.

"The season is not over," Gillispie said following Tuesday night's victory. "We're going to play and we're going to do our best. They understand the reason why we're in the situation that we're in. They want to rectify the situation. They took the first step of doing that (Tuesday night) and I think it's going to bode well not only for tonight but for the future."

Playing in front of a raucous crowd at Memorial Coliseum for the first time since 1976, UK held on for a 70-60 victory over UNLV. Junior Jodie Meeks and sophomore Patrick Patterson continued their dominant seasons Tuesday as Meeks scored 19 points and Patterson added 16.

If they hope to continue the 2008-09 campaign, they'll have to win at the Qwest Center, a place Creighton has lost at just twice this season. If UK can do that, it will play Notre Dame Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Should the Wildcats advance that far, the quarterfinals would be played in South Bend, Ind., because Notre Dame has a better seed than UK.

All that of course depends on what UK does Monday. It's easy to look ahead to a chance to play in the Big Apple, but first UK must conquer the Road to Omaha.

"It feels great to be able to advance and to know we get to play another game," Patterson said. "We're having fun playing together and we don't want it to end."

Head Coach Billy Gillispie

On his future at Kentucky...

"I meet with Mitch Barnhart and Dr. Todd regularly, but we did not meet about the future. We have been trying to recruit and coach, and that is our main focus ...

"All you can do is work, and that is all I have ever done and that is all I will ever do. Our guys are having fun and I'm having fun. They are determined to play and we are going to go after it to see what we can do. I worry about the things I can control, and what we can control is how we practice, prepare and play. I love it here, I like our guys, and I'm really excited about our guys coming in and coming back."

On the effect the NIT has had on the team...

"Unfortunately, we did not make the NCAA Tournament and that is what we all want to do. Because we did not make the tournament, we have matured dramatically. You can always know you have work to do to get into the NCAA Tournament. But, you don't know you are in until you are in, and you don't know you are out until you are out. We are an inexperienced group, and we always kept hoping and working hard. The finalization hit hard when we weren't in there, and it has given them a chance to mature dramatically. We played a good stretch of basketball against a good team the other night for a long period of time. But, our inexperience showed again when we let UNLV come back. We weren't able to make plays and win games at the most important time. Extra practice time helps and experience is a great teacher for all of us. They have done a lot of good things, but we had a few bad stretches and that is what got us. They learned that something was not provided for them and they don't want to let it happen again."

On Kentucky's season...

"There are not too many teams that play at the highest level all year long that don't play any seniors, or play them with limited minutes. That is not an excuse, it is a fact and a reality. They have been fired up, they work as hard as any time I have been around, they listen, they are coachable, and they have done everything we ask them to do. Sometimes we came up short. You can never get happy or satisfied, and they haven't."

On Creighton...

"We need to play as hard as we can. We haven't been anywhere this year that hasn't been excited to play against us, and we weren't excited to play against them. That is what competition is. It should be a fun, entertaining and exciting game. Their program has proven over time that they can make a lot of statements. They have a great program, they have a great team, they won 12 of 13, and won 10 in a row entering their conference tournament. They held on to win the first game in their tournament and in the second game they played a team [Illinois State] that made 13 of 19 three-pointers. They took a tough loss and they bounced back in the NIT. Creighton won 27 games for a reason and I believe they have been making statements for a long time. Nobody [we have played] plays as many people as they do. They may play 11 guys tomorrow night. They have been playing 10, and the ninth and tenth guy always play quite a few minutes. They are capable, they are good inside and they are good on the perimeter. It is not as easy to compare them to someone as it was to compare UNLV to Auburn."

On Creighton's outside game...

"They make a lot and they shoot a lot, but they (also) do a lot off of the dribble and in the post-up area. They are a good defensive team, they press well, they guard well, they shoot free throws well, they don't turn the ball over much, and they get about eight steals per game. It is a sound team, and they aren't playing five or six guys, they play a lot of people."

On Jodie Meeks...

"You have to give credit to defenses. Even though he has missed some shots, I want him shooting it every time he is open. He is a great shooter, but I think he might be worn down due to stress. His physical conditioning is excellent, but the stress of the season and doing so much takes a toll. I think we will play great tomorrow night and I thought he was great the other night, and he was best when the game was on the line. I don't have any problems or worries about Jodie."

On Darius Miller...

"In the last month, he has been really good. He is only going to get better, and he has changed and improved a lot. It is hard for a freshman, and being Mr. Basketball in this state is added pressure. He has handled that well. He is the best young person we have seen and he is coachable. Not only has he become a better offensive player, he is a really good defender. Like any freshman he has his moments, but he is guarding guys who are a lot smaller who have a quickness advantage. He is learning to play angles and I'm proud he is improving in that area so quickly. He is not afraid to take shots and force the action, and I have great confidence he can guard his man in the toughest situations."