By SETH LAMAR
Gold Standard Sports Editor
Merely a game and a half into the post- Nerlens Noel era, the Kentucky Wildcats 2013 campaign seems to be coming off the rails. John Calipari’s team still has enough opportunities to lock up a spot in the NCAA tournament, but the Wildcats will need to show a drastic change in effort and execution from what fans saw Saturday at Tennessee.
This raises the questions, just how crucial was Noel to the Wildcats’ modest success?
How can they possibly move forward without him?
The first question is easy.
While Noel is far from a finished product offensively, his freakish athleticism enabled him to get whatever he wanted around the basket and it gave the Wildcats 10 points per contest. He seemed to be the only wildcat with any sort of presence on the glass by averaging 9.5 rebounds per game.
Defensively, I think the 4.4 blocks and 2.1 steals per game speak for themselves. The problem is, Noel might’ve been a bit too good on the defensive end of the floor for his teammates’ own good. What fans saw in Saturday’s 88-58 shellacking in Knoxville was a court full of players in blue looking for someone else to make the hustle play on defense or to bail them out on a miscue with a steal or a block. Calipari refuses to run a zone and Tennessee exploited that. All the Vols had to do was beat their man one-on-one. Well, except for Skylar McBee, the youthful-looking Colonel Sanders wannabe with a one-dimensional game.
How can the young Cats salvage their season and avoid a trip to the NIT?
Even the most pedestrian basketball fan would say the Kentucky players need to buy in, but the Wildcats are 25 games into the season—it’s a November issue happening in February. Without Noel, the Wildcats have no identity.
Calipari’s famed dribble-drive offense seldom shows any semblance to what the Wildcats have been running recently. Kentucky could probably benefit
from running the offense more often than not, but the personnel might not be there.
Any remedy for Kentucky’s lackluster play without Noel will undoubtedly be easier said than implemented.
Kentucky’s issues finishing out the season don’t simply center around Willie Cauley-Stein stepping in for Noel. While Cauley-Stein has all the potential in the world, he’s a season or two away from being a world-beater.
For one, Kyle Wiltjer is Kentucky’s most efficient offensive threat right now. Problem is, he’s as slow as molasses and his foot quickness is akin to changing direction in a bulldozer. The best use of the sophomore big man would be to get him as many opportunities with his back to the basket or open on the perimeter with the pick-and-roll—not exactly part of the dribble drive.
Archie Goodwin will need to demonstrate more patience and tact with driving to the basket. Instead of spearing his opponents on the way to the basket, he geared down and defered to his teammates. With Goodwin’s driving ability, the defense will either collapse on him in the lane and leave someone open or he gets the layup—like earlier in the season.
Alex Poythress continues to be an enigma on the court and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. There’s little doubt he could be one of the best college basketball players in America. Poythress has a sweet stroke
and he’s built like a brick… Well, you get the idea.
For Poythress to make any sort of contribution beyond four points and five fouls per game, he needs to be assertive. More importantly, he needs to be aggressive. He is undoubtedly the most important cog in Kentucky’s offense. Julius Mays wasn’t brought in to be the leading scorer for a season. Most people would have predicted Poythress would have been averaging at least 16 points per game. Not 12.
Lastly, Jarrod Polson should not be the answer at point guard. Neither should Goodwin. For the season, it should have been Ryan Harrow—a former five-star recruit with the confidence and toughness of a walk-on. What’s more frustrating is how the North Carolina State transfer performed against Louisville—flawlessly.
Where is that version of Harrow?
All there is now is the version of him getting physically abused in SEC play and seems mentally beaten whenever faced with adversity.
Maybe Harrow and the rest of the new Kentucky players feel the pressure of living up to their predecessors. Maybe, they feel the pressure of beating out their successors. Such will always likely be the case as long as the one-and-done system is in place, but Kentucky’s tradition wasn’t built on always looking to the next season.
Kentucky’s season isn’t going to plan, but it’s also not over. Freshmen haven’t all lived up to the hype, but there isn’t any experience leadership for them to look to. The 2012-13 season has been a trial by fire for the young Kentucky newcomers, but it could help them become better sophomores.
I say sophomores because there isn’t a legitimate lottery pick outside of Noel on the team.
That said, Calipari shared a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. to put their undertaking in perspective:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
Kentucky fans can only hope the Wildcats take those words to heart.