LEXINGTON, Ky. | It was a strange feeling for the Kentucky basketball players as they gathered in front of the television for the NCAA tournament selection show, all but certain their team wouldn't be picked for one of the 65 spots.
Even as the tournament teams were unveiled Sunday night without the Wildcats being called, guard Jodie Meeks said he held on to a glimmer of hope until the last spot was announced. Teammate Patrick Patterson said after the late season tailspin, he had no hopes left that the team would go dancing.
"It wasn't fun," sophomore center Patrick Patterson said. "We knew we weren't going to get in."
That was Sunday night. On Monday, the nation's all-time winningest college basketball team was determined to look past that disappointment and ahead to the only thing left to salvage this season — a possible deep run in the National Invitation Tournament.
"You set goals at the beginning of the year that you want to win a national championship," forward Ramon Harris said. "Unfortunately we put ourselves in a situation we didn't make the tournament. Now we have another test at hand."
It won't be an easy one. The Wildcats (20-13) face a tough matchup when they host UNLV (21-10) Tuesday night in the NIT's opening round. The Rebels have some impressive wins on their resume, including a road victory at Louisville, chosen Sunday as the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
"It's just a hard team to guard," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. "It's just a real hard team because they have so many people in their schemes that can make baskets."
Gillispie says his struggling team didn't play well enough to deserve consideration into college basketball's premier event. Kentucky dropped nine of its final 13 games, including a loss to LSU in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament last week.
Although even an NIT championship would likely be deemed a failure by Kentucky standards, Gillispie said he remains confident about a long-predicted breakout performance from his talented team, which has two all-Southeastern Conference players in Meeks and Patterson.
"We're not very far away from being a great team, a special team," Gillispie said. I wouldn't doubt if it happened in this tournament."
Kentucky hasn't played in the NIT since 1979. Although that isn't where the team wanted to play, it will have some historical significance because the game will be played in the team's old stomping ground of Memorial Coliseum, where the Wildcats haven't played a game in 33 years.
"It might be even more of a home court advantage because it's so much more loud, and the fans are closer," forward Perry Stevenson said. "But it's the same measurements on the floor. I guess it can't be too different."
After the Wildcats' late season tailspin, speculation has mounted in Lexington about Gillispie's job security. Patterson said Monday he is convinced his coach isn't going anywhere.
"We're all confident he's staying," Patterson said. "We're all confident he'll still be around next year."
It was a far more direct answer than Gillispie himself gave when asked about his desires to lead next year's Wildcats team.
"We're still playing right now," he said. "I'm concerned about this year."