Mark Story: With Noel lost, Cats should look to Gillispie era (really) for inspiration

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 14, 2013 

A Kentucky team perceived to be teetering near the NCAA Tournament bubble late in its season is shocked by the season-ending loss to injury of its star freshman big man.

UK in 2012-13 following Nerlens Noel's torn ACL suffered in the Wildcats loss at Florida on Tuesday night?

Of course.

But it was also true of Billy Gillispie's Wildcats in 2007-08, when the Cats lost standout freshman Patrick Patterson to a late injury yet still clawed their way into the NCAA Tournament without him.

That is why the dispiriting loss of Noel now sets up a rare dynamic for the current Wildcats — a chance to look back on the Gillispie era for positive inspiration.

In 2007-08, the first of Gillispie's ultimately ill-fated two seasons in Lexington, the Wildcats dug out of a steep hole — a 6-7 start; home losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego; a 41-point defeat at Vanderbilt — to get to the verge of NCAA Tournament qualification.

With three games left in the '08 regular season, Kentucky had a 10-3 SEC record. The widely held belief was that 12-4 in the league would earn the Cats a bid to the Big Dance.

Yet right before the '08 Cats traveled to face then-No. 2-ranked Tennessee, it was announced that Patterson (averaging 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds) was out for the year with a stress fracture in his left ankle.

Without him, it seemed all hope was lost for Kentucky. Gillispie told the local media he cried when he got the news.

Yet with the basketball commentariat looking in on Kentucky's visit to Tennessee to see if the Cats sans Patterson were still NCAA Tournament worthy, senior guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley led a gritty UK effort.

In Knoxville, Perry Stevenson claimed a career-high 14 rebounds. Ramon Harris scored a career-high 12 points. Kentucky took the heavily-favored Vols to the final buzzer before falling 63-60.

Even in defeat, the 2008 Cats delivered the message that they were not giving up on their season without their freshman star.

They backed that up with a road victory at South Carolina and a Senior Day win over Florida to get to the 12-4 conference record. Even though UK lost its first game in the 2008 SEC Tournament, that was enough to get the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament with a No. 11 seed.

In the Dance, UK fell to Marquette 74-66 in spite of 35 points from Crawford and 19 from Bradley. Still, most people were left with a good feeling toward that team for the way it battled once Patterson was lost.

The current Cats (17-7, 8-3 SEC) now face a similar challenge — and opportunity.

In a season long on frustration, the one consistent bright spot had been the 6-foot-10 Noel. He may not be Kevin McHale when it comes to refined offensive post moves, but the Everett, Mass., product was nevertheless one of the more unique and productive players to wear UK Blue and White.

Though it was overshadowed by Elston Turner's 40-point outburst, Noel's performance — 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists, four steals — in the Cats' home loss to Texas A&M may be the finest all-around performance I've seen in person by a Kentucky player.

Without Noel, the current Cats now have seven games to see if they can salvage their season. Just as in 2008, Kentucky's first game without its injured freshman big man is again at Tennessee.

It says here Saturday's visit to face Cuonzo Martin's Vols (13-10, 5-6 SEC) will be the most important game of the entire Kentucky season. If the No-Noel Cats go to Knoxville and win, it will keep UK solidly in NCAA tourney consideration. Should the Cats lose, a fragile team could see its season go into free fall.

Even though Kentucky had won five in a row before the loss at Florida, there was a case to be made that much of the team was regressing.

Archie Goodwin has made 12 of 33 shots in his last four games. Ryan Harrow has 14 assists vs. 13 turnovers in his last seven. Alex Poythress has gone four straight games without scoring in double figures and is 6-for-22 in those contests. Since his 26-point game at Ole Miss, Kyle Wiltjer has made eight of 24 field goal tries.

A road win amidst adversity at UT might finally galvanize a UK team that, so far, has seemed less than the sum of its parts.

In 2008, a more experienced but less talented Kentucky battled through the loss of its freshman star to make the NCAA tourney and leave good vibrations with its fan base.

Do the current Cats have the spirit — and the fight — of '08 in them?

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230 Email: mstory@herald-leader.com Twitter: @markcstory Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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