KNOXVILLE — Kentucky's historic 88-58 loss at Tennessee on Saturday couldn't be attributed entirely to the absence of Nerlens Noel. But that's a good place to start.
Without Noel's shot blocking and intimidation, Kentucky had no defensive presence. Tennessee made 58 percent of its shots, the best accuracy by an opponent in John Calipari's four seasons as coach. The Volunteers also became only the fourth UK opponent in that time to make at least half its shots.
The Cats were outscored in the paint for only the sixth time this season. The Vols' 40 points marked the third most by a UK opponent this season and, uh, painted half the ugly picture.
Offensively, Kentucky's still water ran shallow. Its 35.8-percent accuracy was the second-worst of the season. The eight assists were the second fewest.
After Tennessee achieved its largest margin of victory in a series that began in 1910 and encompasses 216 games, Kentucky recognized the Vols' superiority this day. But like their performance, the Cats' hearts didn't seem in the compliment.
"We have to give them credit," said Kyle Wiltjer, who led UK with 18 points (10 in the final 4:21 after UT built a 36-point lead). Then he added, "It was a very lackluster performance on our part."
Noel, who led the nation in blocks (4.42 per game), tore his left anterior cruciate ligament at Florida on Tuesday. Kentucky's shock of not having its best player showed.
"No excuses," Wiltjer said. "We have plenty capable guys who have to bring it with a tougher intensity."
Calipari, who suffered his most lopsided loss since returning to college coaching at Memphis in 2000, questioned whether even Noel could have made Kentucky a winner against the inspired Vols.
"They deserved to beat us by 50 today," he said. "... The way we played and the way they played, even if we had Nerlens, we'd have gotten beat."
Maybe worst of all, Kentucky lost its composure as well as the game in falling to 17-8 overall and 8-4 in the Southeastern Conference. Referee Doug Shows ejected assistant coach John Robic with 11:17 left in the first half.
"They got a call wrong," Calipari said in reference to an errant alternate possession decision that favored UT. "And (Robic) was disappointed about it. He said something. I don't think he said enough to get tossed, but he did."
UK trailed 24-12 when Robic exited.
"I knew right after John was thrown and all that stuff happened, the game was over," Calipari said. "My thing was just fight. Let's battle."
Later, Noel's replacement, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Archie Goodwin received technical fouls for shoving Tennessee players (Trae Golden and Armani Moore, respectively).
Three UK players fouled out: Alex Poythress, Ryan Harrow and Cauley-Stein.
"Don't do that now," Calipari said when asked about the shoves. "Down 30. Why not do it when the game was in the balance?"
Tennessee (14-10, 6-6) jumped on UK early. The Vols led by double digits barely seven minutes into the game and steadily increased their margin (the zenith was a 39-point bulge with 2:28 left).
"This was their chance to hit that wounded animal," Calipari said of UK's worst defeat since a 93-52 beatdown at Vanderbilt on Feb. 12, 2008. "They ran the car over us a couple times. Over and back. Over and back. Make sure we're done."
Calipari acknowledged that his still-embryonic plan for dealing with Noel's absence needed fine-tuning. Without Noel, the Cats must try to snuff opponents' drives to the basket by taking charges. The UK coach said at halftime he threatened the Cats with extra practice sprints if players didn't try to take more charges.
"This was a hard game to start with," Calipari said of the post-Noel part of the season. "We're still trying to learn how we're going to play offensively (and) what we're going to do defensively. We ran into an inspired team.
"I told them afterward, I've had teams come in here and get smoked like this."
Trying to find the silver lining in the dense fog of a dark cloud, Calipari suggested the embarrassment of a pounding can lead to renewed resolve and willingness to be coached.
"It's a great thing for us as a new team," he said. " ... What we tried to do (didn't work).
"Let me do my thing. Let them do their thing. And let's see how this thing turns out."
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
When: 8 p.m. TV: WKYT-27
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com