The torn ACL of star freshman Nerlens Noel made Kentucky a team destined for the NIT in the minds of many. That may still be the case, but Wednesday night in a close 74-70 win over Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena, they found an interior presence late that helped them to a win.
Willie Cauley-Stein had blocks on consecutive possessions in the final minute, looking every bit as capable as Noel around the rim to stop two Vanderbilt possessions and preserve a victory. Cauley-Stein finished with 20 points, seven rebounds, and three big blocks on a night that Kentucky needed some things to go right to fend off a Vanderbilt team that they had trouble with earlier in the season even when Noel was in the lineup.
In addition to Cauley-Stein having his biggest game of the season, guards Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow both played well. They both scored in double figures and looked to have done a complete 180-degree pivot since going scoreless in his last two games. He had 12 points and four assists, but perhaps most importantly no turnovers.
Part of that is a credit to the fact that Kentucky did not look as tentative and tense as it did in its first game without Noel, a blowout loss to Tennessee. Coach John Calipari said that the team played dodgeball to lighten the mood on Tuesday after a team walk-through. Was it part of the solution? [Here’s video of the dodgeball game]
There still remain areas of concern, though.
Kentucky played well in the first half, leading by eight at the break. The problem was, that energy in the first half made for a team that struggled to keep up for much of the second. The defense has to continue to adapt
But I’m still not sold on Kentucky falling on the right side of the bubble on Selection Sunday. The struggles they saw tonight at home likely won’t make for a win against Missouri, or on the road against Arkansas, or at home against Florida without Noel. Without a true signature win, John Calipari and the Wildcats could be NIT-bound.