There was no glossing over the fact that Kentucky was going to have difficulties adjusting to the lack of star freshman Nerlens Noel in the middle of its defense. That being said, Saturday was ugly for the Wildcats, even with expectations being as they were.
Kentucky led for a total of 23 seconds against Tennesse at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, shooting just 36 percent in an 88-58 loss Saturday afternoon.
The absence of Noel is where the problems began for coach John Calipari’s team, but certainly not where they ended. Let’s begin with the obvious.
Without Noel in the middle, Kentucky looked like an NIT bubble team (at best) Saturday. The Wildcats were outrebounded by 13 and allowed Tennessee, a team that came into the game shooting 43 percent from the field on the year, to shoot 58 percent on the afternoon.
Kentucky defenders continued to work the Tennessee offense to the rim. The problem was, no Noel guarding the basket meant easy points.Tennessee took just twelve shots from outside the paint on Saturday and, because of that, shot 20-of-38 on the interior.
That forced Kentucky to collapse even further, which opened up the perimeter. The Volunteers hit nine of their twelve shots from outside the lane, including 5-of-5 shooting from three. Tennessee came into Saturday averaging just 63.7 points per game.
But Noel’s absence defensively doesn’t necessarily explain the offensive woes, too.
Point guard questions continue to linger in Lexington, especially after Ryan Harrow failed to score and fouled out in just 18 minutes on the floor. That came after Calipari started Jarrod Polson in his place. Polson finished with 11 points but no assists. And the problems move outward from there.
Polson was unable to guard Tennessee’s Trae Golden, who tallied 24 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the floor and 11-of-12 from the free throw stripe. Moving forward, how much of the defensive liability can be tolerated, especially considering the compromised interior?
With the lack of control on the perimeter, Willie Cauley-Stein fouled out after 23 minutes.
Alex Poythress was replaced in the starting lineup by Kyle Wiltjer, but that didn’t help to (excuse the ‘coach speak’) light a fire under him or any other applicable cliche. He, too, fouled out after posting four points. His lack of development is in part due to the lack of consistency at the point guard spot, but some of it could come down to effort especially considering his immense physical gifts and the flashes of dominance we have seen throughout the season.
There are a lot of pieces to this Kentucky puzzle. Taking Nerlens Noel out means it cannot be complete, but it is up to Harrow, Poythress, Wiltjer, Archie Goodwin, and others to prove how far this Wildcats team can go.