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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach John Calipari has seen the gloomy forecast for his team now that star center Nerlens Noel has been lost for the season due to a knee injury suffered in Tuesday’s loss at Florida. But Calipari is not ready to abandon hope for a successful season going into Saturday’s game at Tennessee.
“I believe in the team. I believe in these guys. I believe in our talent,” Calipari said on the website coachcal.com. “We’re still young, I know, but we’re talented enough to win. We’ve got enough pieces. I’ve done this with five players before, folks, where I’ve played five. I’ll play five guys. I’ll play five. Maybe one of you plays a couple minutes. Don’t look and say, ‘Holy cow, he’s only playing five guys.’ I’ll do that. If six deserve to play, I’ll play six or seven. But if only five deserve to play, you know what’s crazy? You only need five to win. You don’t need seven or eight or nine; you need five.
“And if that’s all we have that will compete and have that competitive spirit and if something happens and they get bumped, they jump right off the floor, and they go teeth and get and get at people — if we do that, we’ll be fine. But the passive stuff is not going to work. We’re going on the road to Tennessee. We’ve got a tough, tough road up there. They’re waiting in the wings with this injury. They’re having parties on the campus right now.”
Calipari said junior Jon Hood, who has “been playing good” in practice, likely gets into the playing rotation now.
“Now what he’s got to do is carry over what he’s been doing at practice over to games. That’s demonstrated performance. He got in against Mississippi and he really helped us. You’ve got to understand, we went to Auburn and the first half Nerlens played four minutes, five minutes. We played without him and we didn’t have Willie (Cauley-Stein),” Calipari said on his website. “We went up to Mississippi and I don’t think Willie was there and Nerlens got in foul trouble and we did it with Jon Hood and those guys. So we’ve played without him. But to be honest, that shot-blocking ability is what changes.
“I’m interested to see because Willie has shown signs of brilliance. I think this gives Kyle (Wiltjer) a chance to where we run a lot of stuff through him. And I also think it now puts it back on Alex (Poythress) to be the player you should be. He should be dominating plays.”
One player who has been dominating games is Tennessee sophomore center Jarnell Stokes. He had his sixth straight double-double — 17 points, 10 rebounds — in a 58-46 win over Vanderbilt Wednesday. It was his 10th double-double of the year, tops in the Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Stokes is handling double teams better and making better decisions to take care of the basketball. “He is also doing a great job of getting offensive rebounds,” Martin said. “I think he is playing a lot harder. He has improved his work ethic in practice. He has done a good job facing up to the basket, making moves and getting his hips and shoulders around.
“I think he is a guy who wants to be a great player, but everybody learns at their own pace. He is taking better angles, going out of his area to get offensive rebounds. When he is doing those things he has a chance to have a high level of success.”
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says Stokes has turned into a “great college player” who is difficult to defend.
“He hurts you now when you send double teams at him. He destroys you when play him one-on-one. If you don’t have to play against him, it is fun to watch but not near as much fun to play him,” Stallings said. “His strength sets him apart. His hands are so great. Anything near him ends up in his hands. He doesn’t get flustered with the game if it is not going his way. He has the complete package.”
It helps that leading scorer Jordan McRae, who notched his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds against Vandy, and point guard Trae Golden are also playing their best.
“McRae has done a good job,” Martin said. “He has the ability to be a real good scorer and he is taking good shots, attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line. He is also doing a good job finding guys when people come out on him,” Martin said. “Having Golden back and playing well really helps us from an offensive standpoint. When Trae is attacking and scoring, we are at our best. He is a scoring point guard.
“We are playing solid basketball, not great basketball. We have done a better job getting the ball to Stokes and (Kenny) Hall around the rim for them to score. We have to establish those guys and if we do, they feed off each other. We are much better when we go inside and play off those big guys.”