By LARRY VAUGHT
KNOXVILLE — His team is still not listening to him the way he wants or playing with the overall intensity he wants — problems Kentucky had well before Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending injury. Now Kentucky coach says the Cats have to know they better start listening or else.
Those weaknesses and many more were exploited by Tennessee here Saturday when the Vols started UK’s No-Noel era with an 88-58 victory, the biggest win ever by the Vols over UK.
“We won the game. We played hard and competed. They were without one of their best players, but we played hard and won,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin.
Tennessee didn’t just win. It dominated Kentucky and showed no fear of going inside with Noel, the nation’s top shot blocker, out with a knee injury. The Vols managed just 65 points in a loss at UK a month ago. They had that total by midway of the second half Saturday.
It got to the point that Calipari said he was “not wasting his breath” coaching his players because they just were not listening — or competing. Now he says the Cats should be so “embarrassed” by this loss that they will come to him and say they will listen to whatever he says.
“If they don’t, they shouldn’t be at Kentucky,” Calipari said.
With four home games and two road games left, Kentucky could maybe still salvage a respectable season even though after getting outrebounded 39-21, giving up 24 points off turnovers and shooting only 35 percent from the field in his game that could be a stretch even for Calipari to believe.
Calipari admitted what he did offensively and defensively didn’t work. But his players also have to understand their laid-back, passive play and attitudes don’t work, either. Kentucky lost the heart of this year’s team when Noel — a player who always hustled — went down. But this team showed it had no soul in this loss and no fight to even try to bounce back from losing Noel.
“Let me do my thing and let them do their thing and let’s see how this plays out,” Calipari said.
It played out bad here Saturday from the start. Calipari benched point guard Ryan Harrow and forward Alex Poythress in favor of Jarrod Polson and Kyle Wiltjer, players he thought were playing harder. But he also noted that UK had its worst practice in his four years at UK Friday and indicated that players were scared of what they were going to face against Tennessee’s older, physical team. He threatened the team at halftime that if it didn’t take charges, they would be running before and after practice. It helped, but not enough.
Tennessee had four offensive rebounds in the game’s first two minutes. The Vols had 13 shots in five minutes. That would have been a 104-shot game at that pace.
“Even if we would have had Nerlens, we would have gotten beat big,” Calipari said.
He’s right, too. Just look at these numbers.
— Harrow played 18 minutes and was 0-for-2 from the field and had zero points, rebounds and assists.
— Archie Goodwin was 2-for-9 from the field and had four turnovers in 34 minutes. He finished with seven points and four assists, but also got a late technical foul after he was shoved in the back and retaliated with a shove. Calipari said he wished Goodwin had fought as hard for loose balls and rebounds.
— Kyle Wiltjer missed 10 of 15 shots even though he finished with 18 points.
— Willie Cauley-Stein had two points, two rebounds and two blocks. While no one could have anticipate Noel-type stats from him, it was fair for Calipari to expect more than that in 23 minutes before he fouled out.
— Poythress also fouled out, but had just four points and two rebounds in 20 minutes.
Polson had as many rebounds — four — as Poythress and Cauley-Stein combined. How can that be? Jon Hood played 15 minutes and had four points — more than Cauley-Stein and equal to Poythress — as well as three rebounds, just one fewer than the two freshmen combined for in this game.
“It is disappointing that we did not come out of the gate with fire and aggressiveness,” Wiltjer admitted. “They jumped on us early. It was a huge loss with Nerlens, but that’s no excuse. We have plenty of capable guys. We have got to bring it harder.
“We were definitely down on ourselves. We have to try and remain positive, but it was a very lackluster performance on our part.”
It was worse than that even if Tennessee was an “inspired” team as Calipari insisted.
“I told the guys after, I’ve had teams come up here and get smoked like this before. I’ve had a couple teams come up here and get smoked like this. The difference is that the good teams look at it and learn from it,” Calipari said. “This is sports and sometimes it happens. They deserved to beat us by 50 points today. They played harder, they played rougher and they executed better. They were stronger with the ball. We just had passive guys who did not want to make plays.
“We’ll get back. I’ve done this 20-something years and I’ve had this happen. The question is: Will they respond coming back. The only way that you can respond is to change. We have to realize that the things that we are doing aren’t right.”
And anyone who watched this game knows there are many, many things this team is not doing right.