Merely a dress rehearsal for a new team. Not the curtain coming down on a season.
That's how Coach John Calipari described Kentucky's 88-58 loss at Tennessee on Saturday: the beginning of the post-Nerlens Noel part of the season, and not the entrance into a dead-end future devoid of hope.
"Let's figure out how we have to play with this new group," Calipari said on the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference Monday. "We had to go through a game to figure it out."
Noel's season ended last Tuesday when he tore the left anterior cruciate ligament at Florida. This necessitated a re-invention of UK without its defensive anchor and the nation's leading shot blocker.
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"It's obvious, without Nerlens we're a little different," Calipari said. "Doesn't mean we're 40 points different. But we're a little different."
Before the Tennessee game, Calipari said Kentucky could more easily compensate for Noel's scoring (10.5 ppg) and rebounding (9.5 rpg) than his shot blocking (4.4 bpg). In re-assessing the loss at Tennessee, Calipari surprised no one by emphasizing defensive adjustments.
"We have to play stronger," he said. "We have to cover for each other. We can't let people just shoot layups, which is what happened last game."
Noel's blocks limited the opposition's access to easy baskets. Without him, the Cats must adjust and take more charges, Calipari said in his post-game news conference. Going into the Tennessee game, UK had taken only eight charges all season.
Kentucky, 17-8 overall and 8-4 in the SEC, struggled against the Vols on offense, too. For the first time in his career, junior Jarrod Polson started at point guard. Ryan Harrow came off the bench. Neither had an assist. Polson scored a career-high 11 points. Harrow went scoreless for a second straight game and fouled out in 18 minutes.
When asked about the point guard position going into Wednesday's game against Vanderbilt, Calipari was non-committal.
"We've got two practices (Monday and Tuesday)," he said. "We'll evaluate that and see what we do."
Calipari backed off his post-game comment about the "coachability" of some players. Citing the need to put comments in "context," he seemed to suggest that he might have been simply venting frustration.
"We have a bunch of good guys," he said. "They want to do well. Some of this is over-whelming. We just lost our best player."
Vanderbilt center Josh Henderson said UK looked "all out of sorts" at Tennessee.
Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings spoke of Kentucky as still well-armed and capable. Rather than denigrate UK, he saluted Tennessee.
When asked how much that game tape could reveal about a re-invented Kentucky, Stallings said, "Tennessee would have beaten probably anyone in the country the way they played. I don't know how much you can look into that. They still have really good players. They still have guys projected as very high draft choices."
That's been true all season. So has Calipari's repeated calls for more toughness and competitive fire.
Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin, a man who personifies tough-mindedness, said it was not easy to instill a rugged resolve in a player with a laid-back personality. Nor was it a task any coach welcomed.
"As a coach, the last thing you want to try to coach is effort and intensity," he said. "When you start trying to coach in those areas, it takes away from what you really want to do. And that's compete and win games and game plan for the next opponent.
"But if you spend a lot of time (on instilling toughness) ... , that's a tough, tough situation."
Florida Coach Billy Donovan noted how a player can be laid-back off the court while also mindful of a standard of grit expected in practices and games. The idea of a coach trying to coax more effort from a passive player or teach a zealous player how to channel his enthusiasm is nothing unusual.
"Every coach in this league goes through that," Donovan said.
The Tennessee coach emphasized how effort varies from player to player.
"For me," Martin said recalling his playing days at Purdue, "if I had the opportunity to play on the floor, that's all I needed."