John Clay: Kentucky lacked Noel — and a whole lot more

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 16, 2013 

  • Next game

    Vanderbilt at Kentucky

    When: Wednesday, 8 p.m. (WKYT-27)

  • Wednesday

    Vanderbilt at Kentucky

    When: 8 p.m. TV: WKYT-27

KNOXVILLE — Tuesday night, Kentucky got demoralized.

Saturday afternoon, Kentucky got demolished.

Tuesday night, Kentucky lost its best player in Nerlens Noel.

Saturday afternoon, Kentucky lost any hope that everything will be OK.

Tennessee 88, The Uncoachables 58.

That may seem rough. It may seem harsh. But it's not the negative media talking. It's not the upset fans talking.

That's the head coach talking.

"We've got a couple of guys that are basically not real coachable," said John Calipari after his worst loss in four years as UK's coach. "You tell them over and over what we want to do, what we have to do, and they do their own thing. That's where we are."

The coach doesn't need a GPS to know that. He could see this rout on Rocky Top thundering down the tracks.

"I did," Calipari said. "Yesterday was our worst practice in four years."

You can blame the Saturday shellacking on a team still in shock after Tuesday night at Florida, when Nerlens Noel's torn ACL shelved the shot-blocking sensation for the season, leaving the leftovers in a lurch.

But teams often rally that first game without a fallen star. They perform above their stations. The real problems come down the line, when they can't sustain it.

That didn't happen this time. And the truth is, you could really see Saturday's smashing coming not since last Tuesday but since the start of the campaign.

After all, how can a team band together in crisis when it already seems so far apart? How can a team suddenly summon the ability to fight back when it hasn't shown a lot of fight from the start?

Example: Point guard Ryan Harrow, a top-level transfer, was benched in favor of former walk-on Jarrod Polson. Harrow responded by somehow managing to play 18 minutes without scoring a point, grabbing a rebound or making an assist. Harrow did commit five fouls.

Alex Poythress was benched in favor of Kyle Wiltjer. Poythress responded with four points and two rebounds in 20 minutes. He also committed five fouls.

Archie Goodwin continues to collect charging fouls the way people used to collect stamps. He added two more to his growing total on Saturday. That matched his number of field goals.

At one point, after another wild Goodwin drive earned the freshman a seat on the bench, Calipari walked down to where his freshman was sitting and said, "I can't coach you."

In November, Calipari predicted it might be February before this young team came together. Instead, on Feb. 16, his team suffered a 30-point loss, four days after it lost by 17 at Florida.

His first three seasons, Calipari suffered one loss by more than 15 points. This season, in a span of five days, he's suffered two.

"It probably could have happened earlier than this," Calipari admitted Saturday.

Not having Noel at Thompson-Boling was surely a factor. But guess what: Noel isn't walking through that door. At least not without the help of crutches.

And this wasn't supposed to be a one-man team, anyway. Calipari was right to say the pre-season voters needed to be drug-tested for voting his team No. 3 to start the season. But even Calipari could not imagine his team losing by 30 points to a Tennessee that entered the game with a losing record in the SEC.

"We had a guy exhausted in practice yesterday, 30 minutes in," said Calipari with a look of exasperation. "It's the middle of February."

On the one hand, Calipari has limited his options by not recruiting a deeper bench. Even if players aren't following instructions, they almost have to remain on the floor. Calipari doesn't have anyone else. Without Noel, he has one fewer.

On the other hand, the head coach does know what he's doing. He's proven that. Over and over.

The Uncoachables might want to give the guy their ears.

"What a great experience we have to go through now," said Calipari, forever looking for that silver lining to sell. "Let's see how this plays out."

After all, what comes after a demolition?

You rebuild.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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