The post-Nerlens Noel part of Kentucky's season begins at Tennessee on Saturday. This venture into uncharted, un-anticipated and decidedly undesired territory makes for ... scaredy-Cats?
"No, not scared," said Willie Cauley-Stein, the player expected to start in place of Noel, but not try to be Noel. "There's more of, like, a challenge to us. Nobody thinks we'll be good anymore.
"We've got a bunch of athletes and competitors on the team. Somebody cancels you out because of one player, we're all in it together."
Similar pessimists who doubted London could successfully stage the 2012 Olympics were called "Gloomadon poppers" and "dismal Johnnies" by its mayor, Boris Johnson. Minus the catchy nicknames, Cauley-Stein likewise dismissed UK doubters.
"People, our fans, were saying, 'Oh, our season's over,' blah, blah," he said Friday. "We still have — what? — seven more games before we even get into a tournament. It can be whatever you want it to be. ...
"I mean, it's frustrating. A team is more than one player."
Noel's season ended when he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament at Florida on Tuesday. Suddenly, Kentucky faced playing the rest of the season without its leader in rebounds, blocks and steals. He also altered countless shots while averaging 10.5 points.
"I just want everybody to do a little bit more," UK Coach John Calipari said. "Obviously, we can make up the rebounds and points. The blocked shots are what you're not going to make up."
At the most elemental level, the Cats must believe. They must call upon their "katra," the Vulcan spiritual essence introduced in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
"The part of you that says, 'Yes, I can!'" Cosmo Kramer says in trying to boost Elaine's self-confidence in an episode of the classic television comedy Seinfeld. To which, Jerry notes, "Sammy Davis had it."
So do the Cats, Jon Hood said.
"Oh, we still believe this team can do special things," he said, "and that there's still a whole lot of talent on this team. We just need to come together. That's all."
Not that Hood meant to dismiss the important roles played by Noel.
Cauley-Stein, listed as 2 inches taller and 16 pounds heavier than Noel, can be a presence around the basket, but ...
"Yeah, Willie's back there," Hood said. "He's a 7-footer that can block shots."
Then Hood added, "It helps to have Nerlens, who everybody's scared of."
Acknowledging that all eyes will be watching him at Tennessee, Cauley-Stein said he must not try to impersonate Noel.
"I've got to not so much look at, 'Oh well, I've got to play out of my mind,'" he said. "I've just got to keep on doing what I've been doing."
Cauley-Stein, remarkably poised and level-headed for a freshman, has averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20.3 minutes the last three games.
Calipari spoke of trying to alleviate any pressure Cauley-Stein might feel.
"All I told him is just be you," the UK coach said. "You know what you do well. Just be you. ... There are things you do well that Nerlens didn't do well."
Earlier this week, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said a team in UK's position must not try to merely substitute a player for Noel, but instead re-invent itself. At this stage, a re-invented UK team has not formed.
Hood spoke of a "scrappier team." That would please Calipari.
"Just fight, battle and compete," he said of his immediate aspirations. "If you don't, don't go in the game. Just stay out. ... We've just got to have guys out there ballin.'"
The Cats might play much more zone. "Maybe," Calipari said. "Maybe. Maybe."
But the UK coach seemed more concerned about effort than strategy. "Let's be an effort team," he said. "Let's be an energy team."
Calipari spoke of "one guy's misery" being another guy's opportunity. Noel's injury can teach the Cats about perseverance.
"Let's see what we are," he said. "I'm not afraid of it.
"I'm anxious to see us step up and play, and I think it will happen."
No. 25 Kentucky at Tennessee
When: 1 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 17-7 (8-3 SEC), Tennessee 13-10 (5-6)
Series: Kentucky leads 149-66
Last meeting: Kentucky won 75-65 on Jan. 15, 2013, in Lexington
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.comJerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com