Tomorrow will be our first glimpse at this Kentucky team's trajectory for the rest of the season. We've said it in nearly a hundred different ways here on KSR since the news broke on Wednesday that Kentucky would have to find a way to navigate the rest of the season without Nerlens Noel. Tomorrow we will start to have a better idea as to what path Kentucky will go down with the home stretch of the SEC schedule remaining. With Kentucky's tournament status in a constant state of flux, it's hard to even pinpoint exactly which games are must-wins at this point. They all are starting to feel that way. This much is certain though-- if Kentucky could start off on the right foot tomorrow in its first outing post-Nerlens, it would go a long way to build some level of confidence moving forward. Replacing the potential #1 draft pick in the NBA, who has also been the most consistent and hardest working player on the team won't be an easy task. In order to beat Tennessee tomorrow on the road, I have compiled a list of what I think Kentucky needs to do to win, what Kentucky wants to do against Tennessee, and what can be considered added bonuses. As always, feel free to agree/disagree/maneuver between categories (as if I had to give you permission...)
These are the things that I believe MUST happen in order for Kentucky to have a chance to win tomorrow
1. Replace Noel's production by committee
Plugging Willie Cauley-Stein into the equation for Nerlens Noel is not going to make up for Noel's contributions to the team. They are two different players, and Kentucky could do a lot to help its cause by having a variety of players chip in to make up for the loss of Noel's 31.9 minutes, 9.5 rebounds and 10.5 points per game (not to mention his 106 blocks on the season). Cauley-Stein will be able to help mop up a good portion of the minutes at the center position, but Cauley-Stein has only averaged 20 minutes per game. On top of that, he has only been back from his injury for a few games now. I don't think it's fair to expect Cauley-Stein to play close to 40 minutes. I'm not sure he would even be ready fitness-wise for that task. Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress will each have to give Kentucky minutes in the center position. Wiltjer has actually done that well in a few opportunities this season.
2. At least 1 of Kentucky's 2 guards needs to have a good game
In an ideal world, both Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow would have a good game. In order for Kentucky to have a chance to win though, I think at least
1 of those 2 guys has to have a big game. Not just a good game--but a big game. The two guards have been in a bit of a slump lately, forfeiting large chunks of playing time to Jarrod Polson. The point production and the assists coming from the guard position the past few games has not been satisfactory. If we lose this game, I don't think it's going to be due to post play. I think it will be due to poor guard play.
3. Kyle Wiltjer or Alex Poythress must be a strong post presence
I mentioned it a bit in point #1. Poythress and Wiltjer are both fully capable of playing with their back to the basket. When Cauley-Stein is not on the floor, Poythress and/or Wiltjer will have to demand some of Tennessee's attention down low on the offensive end. Same goes for the defensive end if/when Cauley-Stein is out of the game. The key match-up will likely be against a strong 6-8 player in Jarnell Stokes.
4. Kyle Wiltjer or Julius Mays hitting from 3-point range
Nothing steals the momentum from the opposing team during a run like a made 3-point basket. Kentucky couldn't seem to buy one against Florida on Tuesday night. If Kentucky falls behind tomorrow, chipping away at the lead will hinge directly on the ability of Mays and/or Wiltjer converting from behind the arc.
5. Avoid foul trouble
Kentucky wasn't the deepest team in the country to start with. Without Nerlens Noel, Kentucky is left with one true center in Willie Cauley-Stein. The rotation which was essentially 7-8 players deep, is now 6-7. If two Kentucky players, specifically Cauley-Stein + Poythress or Wiltjer, get in foul trouble-- things could become very troublesome. Cauley-Stein will likely also be playing more minutes than he is used to. On top of that, Noel has had to clean up a lot of the lost assignments by the guards. Between potential fatigue from an expanded role, and having to cover for the mistakes of the guards-- Cauley-Stein could be an easy target to pick up a silly foul here or there.
6. Keep the rebounding numbers close
Even though Kentucky won by 10 points in the last meeting between the two teams, the rebounding margin was very close. Kentucky edged Tennessee by 4 rebounds. Set aside Noel's shot blocking for a moment. Noel was averaging 9.5 rebounds per game for Kentucky. That is a number that will have to be filled by Cauley-Stein with help from Poythress.
Things that may not all necessarily HAVE to happen, but would be very helpful if Kentucky wants to win tomorrow
1. Don't fall behind early
Nothing would help this Kentucky team more mentally than jumping out to a hot start against Tennessee. A fast and successful start could build confidence among this team that they can still compete even without Nerlens Noel. If the opposite occurs, and Kentucky falls behind by a large margin early-- doubt might creep into the team's mind and they may have a tough time recovering (not just in the game, but for the rest of the season).
2. Both of Kentucky's guards need to have good games
I mentioned in the "Needs" section that at least 1 of Kentucky's 2 guards needs to have a big game. If both could muster up a big performance, I think Kentucky wins going away.
3. Alex Poythress steps up
Sound familiar? Rinse and repeat. Alex Poythress still
needs to step up for this Kentucky team to reach its potential.
4. Willie Cauley-Stein must step into Noel's role as the hustle and heart guy
I think this will be a natural fit for Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein has already provided a huge spark for Kentucky, whether he was starting earlier in the season or coming off the bench as of late. Cauley-Stein has rarely been accused of showing a lack of effort. He hustles on both ends of the floor, often making the plays that don't necessarily show up on the stat sheet at the end of the game. Nerlens Noel was the main hustle and heart guy on this team. Cauley-Stein was perhaps the next closest thing. Now, he will have to step into that role even more without Noel.
5. Don't get Elston Turner'd
Jarnell Stokes might "get his." Stokes has been "getting his" lately against a lot of teams. Stokes can have a big game, but Kentucky can't afford for someone else on Tennessee's roster to have a "One Shining Moment" type of night. Stokes can get his 20 and 10. But if, let's say Skylar McBee goes for 20+, we're in trouble.
It's not a question of whether or not Jarrod Polson will play anymore. It's now a question of just how much. I'd be willing to bet that Polson gets somewhere between 12-20 minutes tomorrow against Tennessee. As always, he just has to continue to be a steadying presence for this team and fulfill his role. Polson doesn't have to go Maryland on Tennessee. He just has to step in and do his part (take care of the ball, hustle plays, solid defense, run the offense, play within himself)
7. Kyle Wiltjer "the scorer"
It doesn't have to be 3s. It can be 2s. One way or another though, Kyle Wiltjer has to score points. This team is at its best when Wiltjer is either the leading scorer or close to it. We've said it all year, but this is his best contribution to this team. Last time Kentucky played Tennessee, Wiltjer had one of his better games on the season (17 points on 6-10 shooting). Wiltjer needs to take at least 10 shots per game. Period.
8. Score 70+ points
Win or lose, Tennessee hasn't scored 70 points in almost a month. Tennessee usually falls in the 55-65 point per game category. If Kentucky can find some kind of rhythm offensively and put up 70+ points, I'm not sure Tennessee can match it.
9. Step up defensively/not have to play zone the entire game
Kentucky will look different defensively without Nerlens Noel. You know that. I know that. Calipari knows that. Tennessee knows that. BTI is even pretty sure he knows that. Kentucky's perimeter defenders will have to step up, even if it's just slightly. Any improvement at all will take some of the pressure off the loss of one of the best shot blockers in the country. I'm not saying anyone has to turn into DeAndre Liggins over night, but they just have to all get marginally better. If Kentucky can manage to play well enough man-to-man to stick with a team like Tennessee, who doesn't have superior guard play, that would bode well for the rest of the season for Kentucky to not strictly have to play zone. Kentucky will face teams eventually with the shooters to force them out of a zone.
We don't need it, but it sure wouldn't hurt to have it...
1. Jon Hood
Calipari harped on the intensity and improved play of Jon Hood lately in practice. I feel like we've said this before about Hood, but now with the loss of Noel it's probably as true as it's ever been: If ever a time existed at Kentucky for Jon Hood to play, this would be the time. I don't think his role will expand greatly, but if Kentucky can get anything out of Hood tomorrow against Tennessee-- I would consider it a bonus. Hood doesn't have to contribute for them to win, but it would be a nice surprise.
2. Kentucky presence in the crowd
We learned today that the game in Knoxville isn't a sellout. If Kentucky fans could find a way to "get blue in" like they have in so many road games this season, that might provide a nice spark to a team dealing with adversity right now.
3. Blocks from Cauley-Stein
You simply can't replace the shot blocking ability of Nerlens Noel. Cauley-Stein is not a specialist in the area like Noel was, but he's athletic and has good size. If Cauley-Stein can give Kentucky a blocking presence down low without Noel--even if only small-- that would be an added bonus in tomorrow's game.
Jarrod Polson will play tomorrow. That much is certain. I said in the "Wants" section that Polson just needs to fulfill his role in the 10-20 minutes he plays. IF Polson did go Maryland on Tennessee, that would be an added bonus.