Kentucky coach John Calipari began coaching a “new team” on Wednesday.
After an MRI revealed that freshman center Nerlens Noel tore the ACL in his left knee during Tuesday’s loss at Florida, the Wildcats will be fighting to keep their postseason hopes alive without their best player.
And the UK boss expects little sympathy from opponents, beginning Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., against the Volunteers.
“We’re still Kentucky,” Calipari said Tuesday night on his weekly radio call-in show. “... And with this injury, they’re waiting in the wings for us.”
That’s the daunting challenge moving forward for the defending national champions. Kentucky (17-7 overall, 8-3 SEC) will likely lose the Top 25 ranking it worked hard to re-acquire last week and may find itself back on the proverbial NCAA Tournament “bubble” with seven SEC games remaining and the league tournament next month in Nashville, Tenn.
Calipari said no single player can compensate for the loss of Noel, who was averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and a national-best 4.4 blocked shots per game. The Massachusetts native had won four consecutive SEC Freshman of the Week honors before going down.
“We’re at that point in the year when we’ve got to have the best version of everybody,” Calipari said. “You can’t come in and say ‘My fault. I played a bad game.’ Don’t want to hear it anymore. Don’t want to hear it.
“You’re going to have to give us something and do it for your team. That’s what this is about now. You have to think more about what do I have to do for this team to thrive -- and first, survive -- with this unit that we now have. This is like our third or fourth different team this year, and you know what, we’re hanging on.”
No one player can fill the void left by Nerlens Noel, John Calipari says.
Kentucky has been no stranger to adversity this season, although nothing quite on this magnitude. The Wildcats played four games in November without sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, who was battling personal issues and an undisclosed illness. They lost to Duke and Notre Dame without him.
In mid-January, Kentucky lost reserve big man Willie Cauley-Stein to a minor knee injury that required an arthroscopic procedure to clean. Like Harrow, he missed four games. The Wildcats went 3-1, falling to Alabama.
Cauley-Stein will be under the biggest microscope moving forward. The 7-foot freshman from Kansas has “shown signs of brilliance” at times this season, Calipari said.
Offensively, UK may not miss a beat. Cauley-Stein is averaging 7.8 points despite playing only 20 minutes per game. He is shooting 64 percent from the field. What he doesn’t do, however -- at least not yet -- is block a lot of shots. Noel rejected 106; Cauley-Stein has 33.
“He doesn’t have the mentality that Nerlens has to just go block shots,” Calipari said. “He just doesn’t. And let me tell you this: we’ve been spoiled now, think about it, with our shot-blockers on the last three teams we’ve had. We’ve been spoiled.
“(Cauley-Stein) can do some other things. He’s athletic. He can be at the point of our press if we want him to be. There’s a lot of good stuff that he can do. We’re just going to be a little different.
“From this point on, we will not lead the nation in blocked shots, just let me put it that way.”
Kyle Wiltjer is one player from whom John Calipari will be looking for more after Noel's injury.
More zone defense could be in the works, Calipari added, showing just how desperate his team might be. The veteran coach has expressed disdain for the strategy in the past.
Calipari will also be calling on more from players like sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, freshman forward Alex Poythress and junior swingman Jon Hood, a previously seldom-used reserve who is now in line for significant playing time.
“Jon Hood now gets in that rotation,” Calipari said. “Let me tell you, he has been playing good. He has been terrific in practice. ... He went into Mississippi and really helped us (in an 87-74 win over the Rebels on Jan. 29).”
Wiltjer and Poythress, who combined for only 12 points and six rebounds in 52 minutes of action at Florida, must step up now.
“I think this gives Kyle a chance where we run a lot of stuff through him,” Calipari said. “And I also think now it puts it back on Alex to be the player he should be. He should be dominating players. You know in that (Florida) game, he should have dominated stuff in that game. They had no one to guard him. That was the fear that they had, how were they going to guard him, and he goes 1-for-9. C’mon, you know you’re better than that. You gotta be the best version of yourself. We talked about that today in individual meetings.”
Some fans and national observers may be writing off the Wildcats already, but Calipari is still expressing faith in his team.
“I believe in the team. I believe in these guys. I believe in our talent,” he said. “We’re young, I know, but we’re talented enough to win. We’ve got enough pieces.
“I’ve done this with five players before, folks ... I’ll play five guys. People will say ‘Holy cow, he’s only playing five guys,” but I’ll do that. If six deserve to play, I’ll play six or seven. But if only five deserve to play, you know what’s crazy? You only need five to win. You don’t need seven or eight or nine. You need five. And if that’s all that we’ll have that will compete and have that competitive spirit ... we’ll be fine. But the passive stuff is not going to work.”
He also called on a boost from the Big Blue Nation.
“More than any other time, these players need our fans,” Calipari said. “They need you at the game. They need the energy in (Rupp Arena). ... They need that extra edge from our fans more than any other year that I’ve been here. They need your energy and they need your acceptance that, OK, here’s where we are right now, let’s get better.”
THE FUTURE FOR NOEL
Calipari was asked whether he thought Noel, once projected as the No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, would still enter the pro ranks this year or return to UK for his sophomore year.
“The decision for Nerlens to come back, I think, will be based on the progress of his rehab,” he said. “Surgery in a couple of weeks. It’s a six-month rehab. When he’s two or three months in, seeing that progress and figuring out is he ready to be able to go on to that next step.
“Like I told him, if you’re not ready, you come back. You become the best guy in the country. What you were this year, you’re going to be even better next year. But that’s something that he and his family will have to go through.”
Last season, college players had to declare by April 29 and had until May 8 to withdraw their names from the draft if they did not hire an agent. This year, April 28 is the declare deadline, but the withdraw deadline has been moved to June 17.
Many NBA analysts still consider Noel to be a top five pick, even coming off surgery, due to a historically weak draft pool.