Noel-less Cats must adjust to make NCAA Tournament



By Les Johns | @KernelJohns

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A wacky, crazy and unpredictable college basketball regular season will finish in a way nobody would have expected — the defending champions and preseason No. 3 ranked Cats fighting for their tournament lives in a seven-game season.

It was close to being that dire before Tuesday night — before freshman forward Nerlens Noel tore his ACL blocking a shot in the Cats loss to the Gators in Gainesville.

The Cats were already clinging to flimsy arguments for inclusion into the Big Dance. The Cats best “quality wins” are at Ole Miss (a team that has lost four of its last five) and in the season-opener against Maryland (who are 4-6 in their last 10 games). Both teams are plummeting in the RPI rankings.

The Cats also tout two close-call losses to what passes as great teams this year (Duke and Louisville).

With no resume-defining win this season, the Cats are in the absolute worst possible scheduling position. There is little opportunity (home matchups against Missouri and Florida) to impress the selection committee with a marquee win, yet many of the teams remaining are tough enough to drop losses on a team struggling to find its identity.

Simply making the NCAA Tournament this year will be an incredible achievement for this team and coaching staff.

With Noel in the lineup, the Cats likely would win five or six of the last seven games and limp into the tourney with a nine or 10 seed. Without Noel, none of the seven games are a certain win.

The Noel difference? He has claimed the SEC Freshman of the Week award four consecutive weeks. He averages 10.5 points a game, and leads the Cats with 9.5 rebounds, 4.4 blocked shots and 2.1 steals per outing.

That’s just the numbers. That is the easiest part to replace. What looks to be more irreplaceable is his drive, effort, intensity and dare I say it. . . swagger. From the moment he committed on ESPN with “UK” carved into the back of his flat-topped hairstyle, Noel has captivated fans with his personality and desire.

Noel has been the only constant for the Cats this season, both in terms of effort and production.

So, the Cats were a marginal NCAA tourney team with have no quality wins, the schedule is stacked against them and they will be lost without Noel. So there is no hope, right?  Incorrect.

Calipari has often said if given a choice between talent and experience, he would take talent every single time. This team still has talent, even without Noel.

Most NBA mock drafts have freshmen Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein as first-round picks. The Cats won’t face a team in their final seven contests with that level of elite talent.

That elite talent, however, has to begin playing much differently than they have for the first 24 games of the season. They haven’t bought in to their roles yet, and now all the sudden their roles — and likely the Cats entire offensive and defensive scheme — are about to change significantly.

What are some possible schematic changes?

1. Willie Cauley-Stein will likely be inserted in the starting lineup and be called upon to play significant minutes. Cauley-Stein has only played more than 30 minutes in one game, and he topped out with a 22-minute outing since his return from knee surgery.

He will be expected to log major minutes, stay out of foul trouble and be an important offensive weapon for these new-look Cats. Cauley-Stein has excellent hands in the post and great court vision. I expect him to both score and distribute well from the inside. His increased presence could be a positive offensively.

2. Expect the Cats to zone much more. Calipari stressed in the early season that the Cats should extend out on 3-point shooters and force them to drive into the Cats interior defense, flanked by Noel and Cauley-Stein. Without Noel, teams will attack off the dribble more frequently. The Cats will have to counter that with playing off the shooters and possibly zoning more frequently.

Although Calipari prefers an active, disruptive variety of zone defense, utilizing it should still reduce the Cats liabilities in respect to fouling with having a less-deep bench.

3. Noel was a leader not with words, but with actions. Someone will have to take the mantle and be the new “energy” guy for the Cats. Calipari has stated repeatedly that if Poythress would expend energy equal to that of Noel’s he would be unstoppable — “a beast,” Calipari has said

Calipari has said that it oft-times takes a crisis situation to initiate change. For this team, this is a crisis situation. The postseason goals they had set are in jeopardy, and it is up to them to decide what will happen. They could conceivably rally together, become a cohesive team and make a run in the wide-open NCAA tournament field or they could crumble under the mountain of excuses that are readily available to them.

If these talented Cats aren’t capable of changing into Calipari’s vision of what he needs them to be for the final seven games of the season, they will be playing in the first NIT of the Calipari era at UK.