Phil Sandlin/Associated Press file photo
Phil Sandlin/Associated Press file photo
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky players had three days to digest the impact of Nerlens Noel’s season-ending knee injury.
The 25th-ranked Wildcats’ Southeastern Conference game at Tennessee on Saturday was their first gut check since enduring the enormous setback. They lost 88-58.
The star freshman forward tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in Kentucky’s 69-52 loss at Florida on Tuesday night. The devastating injury will mean a new rotation for the young Wildcats (17-8, 8-4 SEC), who struggled to develop chemistry this season even with the nation’s top shot-blocker on the floor.
Besides raising their games to offset the loss of Noel’s contributions on both ends of the floor, Kentucky players had to quickly adjust to slow Tennessee (14-10, 6-6 SEC). The Volunteers now have won five of their last seven behind forward Jarnell Stokes, who has posted six consecutive double-doubles.
For the defending national champions, the task is building the resolve and performance to meet challenges that extend beyond this weekend.
“We just got a clean slate. It’s like a brand new season now,” said 7-foot freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who will man the post after spending most of the season as Noel’s backup.
“We’ve got to figure out how to play with his absence and do things different. The first couple of games it’s going to be uncomfortable for us, but if we get used to it and just buy into what coach is saying, we’ll be alright.”
How differently Kentucky plays, coach John Calipari couldn’t say Friday because the team hasn’t practiced much since Noel’s injury. But he sounded curious to see what adversity brings from his roster.
Calipari doesn’t expect Cauley-Stein to copy Noel’s all-around averages of 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game. Nor does the coach foresee huge offensive breakouts from his personnel given their periodic inconsistency.
But Calipari doesn’t think his Wildcats have forgotten the gains they had during their five-game winning streak that ended at Florida, either. No doubt, losing Noel is a huge blow on many levels that will take some doing to overcome.
Calipari, echoing Cauley-Stein, believes his players have the ability to do “a little bit more.”
“Obviously, we can make up rebounds and points,” he said. “Those blocked shots are what you’re not going to make up. So, we’ll see. This team has a clean slate. It’s a blank canvas. It’s whatever they want it to be. ...
“You know what’s funny? We win five of six. We do have an injury that can either bring you together or separate you. But now we’re on the cusp of, ‘OK, let’s see what we are. Let’s learn.’”
At the very least, players such as Cauley-Stein will earn more minutes, and he’s eager to see how his game develops with added playing time. Though admittedly lacking Noel’s shot-blocking skills, he can score, rebound and steal the ball.
Cauley-Stein, who missed four games last month after a minor procedure on his left knee, believes the key is doing what he does well better rather than imitating Noel.
“I’m not Nerlens,” said Cauley-Stein, averaging 7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. “He does things that are just uncanny. His ability to block shots, I don’t have that ability. What I do have is athleticism, be able to play out on a guard, simple stuff like that and just hustle. That’s all I have to take care of.”
His immediate task was handling the 6-8, 270-pound Stokes, the reigning SEC player of the week. Averaging 12.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game overall (9.8 boards in league play), the sophomore forward is the first conference player with six consecutive double-doubles since Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins had seven in a row in 2010.
Stokes had just four points and five rebounds before fouling out after playing 15 minutes in the Vols’ 75-65 loss to the Wildcats on Jan. 15. After fouling out again two games later at Mississippi, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin contacted the SEC about how his player was being officiated.
Stokes’ streak began right after, and fouls haven’t been an issue. Though he won’t face Noel again, Cauley-Stein is no slouch.
Stokes’ streak ended Saturday with nine points and nine rebounds.
“You take that away, and I think that changes a team,” Stokes said of Noel’s absence. “But they still have a good player in Willie Cauley-Stein, who’s also 7 feet. They still should be good.”
How good depends on whether the Wildcats drop bad habits Calipari believes has slowed their growth.
At different points this season, the coach has called out sophomore guard Ryan Harrow and freshmen Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin either for their attitude, decision-making or lack of hustle. But Calipari said everybody needs to step up their play if Kentucky hopes to make the NCAA Tournament.
That means opportunities for Kentucky players such as 6-7 junior Jon Hood, who last year went through what Noel will face when he undergoes surgery in the next two to three weeks. The guard’s recovery has been slow this season, but he now feels ready to play more minutes and contribute wherever he’s needed.
Hood is confident the Wildcats can adopt that same approach, one bright side in an otherwise gloomy week for Kentucky.
“We still believe that this team can do real special things,” Hood said. “There’s still a whole lot of talent on this team, we just need to come together, that’s all. No Nerlens is a big thing. That’s a big loss – but nothing that can’t be made up.
“We weren’t fully together, and this is the thing that will bring us to that point.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.