It’s still hard to try to put into words just how bad Kentucky was in Saturday’s 88-58 loss at Tennessee — and the game really wasn’t as close as the 30-point margin might indicate. So to try and explain what happen to the Cats in their first game without injured Nerlens Noel, I went back through my postgame notes looking for quotes to shed light on this epic collapse by the Cats.
— Kentucky coach John Calipari: “We have a couple of guys who are not real coachable. You tell them over and over and over again what you want to do, and they do their own thing. When they realize that if we don’t do this all together, that we are going to have more of these (losses) it will change.”
Calipari did not name the players who are not “coachable” but he didn’t start sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow or freshman forward Alex Poythress and then he told freshman Archie Goodwin during the game that he “could not coach him.” So you draw your own conclusions on who Calipari meant.
But this is the first time in four seasons at UK that Calipari has not been able to get through to players. He has had some — Daniel Orton, Demarcus Cousins, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson, Terrence Jones — he did not always see eye-to-eye with but they all eventually listened and improved. That was not happening with this team even before Noel went down.
— Tennessee guard Trae Golden: “I don’t think I saw them quit.”
That was his attempt to be tactful when asked if he thought Kentucky quit after the game got out of hand. Or maybe he couldn’t tell since most of the Wildcats never seemed all that enthused from the start. Tennessee beat UK to loose balls, drove inside at will and dominated the boards 39-21.
“We were all saying if we could just blow them out, and you know it happened that way,” Golden said.
Calipari didn’t use the quit when talking about his team, but he sure let his thoughts on his players’ effort be known. “I have to do my thing on what we are going to do offensively and defensively, but we (the coaches) can’t go out there and play for them,” Calipari said.
We can’t go out there and battle for them. We can’t want it more than they do.”
— Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes: “They are not a soft team. I feel like they have to get adjusted to playing without Nerlens is part of it.”
The Vols were obviously more physical but Stokes, who almost came to UK but there was no scholarship for him midway of last season, didn’t want to be too hard on Kentucky after admitting “I am friends with a lot of those guys still.”
Calipari was a bit more blunt. “They were stronger with the ball. We just had passive guys who did not want to make plays,” Calipari said.
— Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin: “I thought he did a great job running the team and being Trae Golden. Attacking the rim, making plays, and when that happens everything else falls in line.”
Tennessee’s point guard had 24 points, eight assists and got to the foul line 12 times. Harrow, UK’s starter most of the season, had no points, rebounds or assists. Polson had 11 points and four rebounds, but even his best effort wasn’t nearly enough to keep Golden out of the lane or creating for teammates.
Kentucky has been used to that type of point guard play from John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague. Harrow has shown flashes of brilliance, but nothing consistent like those three and in the biggest games he’s not been able to deliver like what Golden did.
“Your shooters are ready to shoot the ball, dribble, penetrate, and they have to identify five guys as apposed to two or three guys. We got better with our offense, the floor really opened up and I think that all starts with Trae Golden. When he plays the way we expect him to play, everything falls in line and it becomes a fun game,” Martin said.
— Calipari: “This team hadn’t beaten us in awhile, kind of like Florida. Now, this was their chance to get that wounded animal. They rode the car over us a couple of times—over and back, over and back.”
And do you think Tennessee is the only Southeastern Conference team that would like to put a beatdown on a wounded Wildcat? Next comes Vanderbilt, a team UK was lucky to beat in Nashville with Noel. After that the ESPN GameDay crew rolls into Lexington for Missouri’s first game in Rupp Arena. Those teams have to be wishing the games were today and will come in with absolutely no fear of No-Noel UK.
“We didn’t really mention Noel being out that much, but Coach told us to get to the rim. Without Noel, it worked,” Stokes said. “Noel is probably the best shot blocker in college basketball and not having him made a huge difference. But we also shot the ball great, so that also made a difference.”
It did. But it is a lot easier to shoot with no pressure and that’s what the UK defense gave the Vols — no pressure and many easy looks.
“We had two or three guys in this game who couldn’t play—they just couldn’t get open and play,” Calipari said.
— Stokes: “I think Kentucky is a very good team. I love coach Calipari. I think he is a great coach. They will be fine.”
Fine? Probably defends on the definition of fine. UK has six games left and now probably has to win four to be back in NCAA Tournament contention — and it’s hard to imagine any scenario where UK will win four of the next six games. Calipari has been working four months without getting his team to listen or play tougher, so why think that will change in the next three weeks.
“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.”
Maybe his players know that after being embarrassed Saturday, but previous losses and Noel’s injury certainly did nothing to inspire a greater effort out of most of the Cats at Tennessee.