Humiliated Cats seek to rebound against Vanderbilt
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Humiliated Kentucky seeks redemption in its second post-Nerlens Noel outing.
Kentucky is entering a stretch of nearly must-win games and can't afford another embarrassing performance like the Wildcats had against Tennessee. In the Wildcats' first contest after losing their freshman center for the season with a knee injury, the Volunteers thumped Kentucky 88-58.
The Wildcats (17-8, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) will host Vanderbilt (10-14, 4-8) Wednesday looking to show they can win without Noel -- sidelined after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament a week ago.
Coach John Calipari said Tuesday without the nation's leading shot-blocker, the Wildcats will have to change their defensive strategy to prevent opponents from getting to the basket. He is also hoping the loss leads to the commitment and cohesion Kentucky needs to make a tournament run.
"Maybe we were a little shocked," Kentucky guard Jarrod Polson said of their initial game without Noel. "I mean, we didn't realize how much he affected things on the defensive end.
"But we're trying to get over it, see what kind of defense we can do now without him. I think we're going to have a good scheme."
While Calipari didn't expect 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein to seal off the rim as well as the 6-10 Noel, the coach didn't think the change would result in Tennessee outscoring Kentucky 40-22 in the paint and outrebounding the Wildcats 39-21.
Calipari wants Cauley-Stein to become more forceful inside, but he's also urging players to sacrifice themselves more and take more charges in an attempt to slow opponents' hopes of exploiting the Wildcats inside.
"It's a big change," Calipari said. "You have to change a little bit of how you're defending, which we are."
While Vanderbilt expects less resistance inside without Noel, the Commodores are still wary of Cauley-Stein. His four blocks and eight rebounds in the Wildcats' 60-58 win in Nashville on Jan. 10 were each one better than the highly touted Noel, who had 13 points including the decisive basket.
The two big men started and played extensive minutes together in that first game against Vanderbilt. This time, if Alex Poythress or even Archie Goodwin improve their defensive play and provide some support for Cauley-Stein, he could be more of a presence on Wednesday.
"Cauley-Stein's still a great player and he's obviously long, he's athletic and definitely makes up for some of that loss," Vanderbilt junior forward Rod Odum said. "I think they're going to look a little different than last time. I'm not sure what way, but I think it'll be a little bit different."
One of the major changes Kentucky needs to be successful has to come at the point guard position, which has been an issue all season. Sophomore Ryan Harrow seemed to be getting a grip on the position when league play started but has struggled of late.
That led to Polson making his first collegiate start in Harrow's place against the Volunteers and the junior finished with a career-high 11 points. But the distribution void continued, with Harrow and Polson combining for no assists and two turnovers.
Calipari stressed that that's where more aggressiveness is needed. He didn't have to tell Polson, who knows he must improve.
"We didn't play well at all," said Polson, projected to make his second straight start. "We're just trying to get better and trying to push the ball more."
Calipari's main hope is that Saturday's loss finally drives home his points about consistent energy, execution and communicating. None of that happened against the Vols and the coach suggested afterward that part of the problem was a couple of "uncoachable" players hindering the process -- though he didn't mention names.
He backtracked Tuesday, saying "uncoachable" was used in the context of what's said on the bench during games. Maybe, but it succeeded in getting the Wildcats' attention as they enter an important stretch run. Kentucky begins a three-game home stand Wednesday, followed by games against Missouri on Saturday and Mississippi State Feb. 27.
After games at Arkansas and Georgia, the Wildcats close the regular season at home against first-place Florida -- the fifth-ranked Gators are the only SEC team ranked in the Top 25. The Wildcats were already on the tournament bubble before losing Noel, and now Kentucky likely needs to run the table to boost its postseason chances.
Right now, though, the Wildcats need to prove they can win a game without Noel.
"We're not looking back to Saturday, we are only looking ahead," fifth-year senior guard Julius Mays said. "We know the task in front of us and we're just ready to get started."