Tennessee’s game plan would be similar: Draw Nerlens Noel away from the basket, then attack inside.
But with Noel out of the picture, Volunteers skipped straight to that last step in routing Wildcats 88-58 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Best player’s not on the floor? Different team,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin declared of how Noel’s absence impacted UK. “He’s one of the better defenders in the country. Not just at shot-blocking. He knows how to defend.”
The Wildcats saw how vital Noel has been to holding together their defense.
They were attacked relentlessly inside. A team that had held opponents to 41 percent shooting on 2-pointers this year ( 6th-best in the country ) allowed the Volunteers to make 53.3 percent of its shots inside and 58 percent overall, the worst mark in coach John Calipari’s 4 years.
“I think it made a difference since they did not have their big man down there blocking shots,” Tennessee guard Trae Golden expounded. “Willie Cauley-Stein can still block shots but maybe not at the same rate that Nerlens Noel could.”
UK was outscored 40-22 in the paint and sent the Vols to the free throw line 31 times, a season-worst mark for the Wildcats. Basketball lines
“Willie Cauley-Stein, he isn’t a shot blocker like Noel was, and doesn’t have the timing that he has,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. “It was simpler to go to the basket without having him there.”"
Tennessee’s 1.38 points-per-possession mark was it is highest of the season (1.31, Oakland) and was UK’s season-worst mark (1.34, Texas A&M). The Volunteers grabbed 62.5 % of all available offensive rebounds, another season high for them (50 percent, Alabama Crimson Tide) and a season low for UK (52.8 %, Maryland).
“I mean, we gave up 4 offensive rebounds in the first 2 minutes,” Calipari claimed. “You’re not going to win (that way).”
Calipari attempted to adjust. He counseled his players to take more charges in the first half. When they didn’t, he requested it in the 2nd half, threatening them with sprints if they didn’t comply.
“We don’t have a shot-blocker,” Calipari said. “You must take charges.”
He also mixed in a 2-3 section for one or two minutes in the 1st half that did not have any more success than UK’s man-to-man defense did.
“We’re still trying to learn what we are doing defensively,” Calipari claimed.
Noel’s absence from the lineup wasn’t the only change to the starting 5.
Guard Ryan Harrow was benched for the 1st time since December 8 and Alex Poythress was benched for just the 2nd time this season (Louisville Cardinals).
In their place were Jarrod Polson, making his first career start, and Kyle Wiltjer, starting for the 1st time in 15 games.
“The other guys didn’t deserve to start,” Calipari related. “You failed to bring it.”
The new starters answered to their chance. Wiltjer led the team with 18 points and 6 rebounds, and Polson scored a career-high 11 points with 4 rebounds in 22 minutes.
The benched players did not reply so well. Harrow scored zero points with zero assists in 18 minutes (which followed a zero-point, one-assist game against Florida). Poythress scored 4 points with two rebounds in 20 minutes. Both fouled out.