Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings knows Kentucky lost center Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury last week and lost by 30 points at Tennessee Saturday without him. Still, Stallings expects UK will be “raring” to go against his team Wednesday in Rupp Arena.
“We’re coming off a pretty good performance against a good Texas A&M team on Saturday and it’s a game I thought our team played pretty well in. We were happy to win that and now we know we’ve got a big challenge in front of us,” said Stallings Monday. “Had a great game against Kentucky the first time around and would anticipate that’s what we’ll have again. But anyway, I know they’re coming off of a disappointing game but I’m sure they’ll be raring to go on Wednesday night. So we look forward to the challenge of going up there and playing and hopefully we can go and play well.”
Stallings said he wasn’t sure what he could learn about UK without Noel from what happened at Tennessee.
“Tennessee would have beaten probably anyone in the country the way they played on Saturday. So I don’t know how much you can really look into that,” Stallings said. “They still have really good players, still have a bunch of guys that are projected to be very high draft choices. So they lost a key guy for sure, but they’re still very, very talented and very, very good. I’m sure that was a case of bad timing on Saturday and I’m sure they’ll be a lot better by Wednesday.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari hopes so, especially since UK also has to host Missouri Saturday night.
“Two good teams. Vandy beats Texas A&M. They played Tennessee to two great games,” Calipari said. “Kev (Stallings) is doing a great job with his team, putting them in positions to have a chance to win every game they play. You look at Missouri’s guard play, which means they have a chance any game they are in. They’ve got big people inside that can do damage, so they’re a top-20 team. Two teams that are going to be rough games for us right now.”
Calipari indicated on the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference that he learned Saturday what other defensive changes he must make without Noel, the nation’s leading shot blocker. With no Noel, Tennessee players got inside and scored time after time.
“Well, I’m not going to tell you everything we’re trying to do because what I’m trying to do is give this team the best opportunity to win games, to put themselves in a position when the game is winding down, we have our chances,” Calipari said. “And it’s on both offense and defense. Aside from X, Y, Z, that’s what we have to do and that’s what we’re trying to figure out. And it’s obvious without Nerlens we are a little different. It doesn’t mean we’re 40 points different (like they were after beating Tennessee b 10 points earlier this season), but we’re a little different, and we’re going to have play stronger. We’re going to have to cover for each other a little more because you can’t just let people shoot layups, which is what happened last game.”
Kentucky also had no inside offensive presence without Noel, who was averaging 10 points per game.
“I don’t think they ran a lot of plays for him to begin with and they didn’t run a lot of plays for Anthony Davis and Anthony Davis still scored a lot of points against you,” Stallings said. “But again, they still have really good players and guys that can shoot and guys that can post and guys that can drive and they’re good in transition. It’s still a very potent offensive team even without Noel and he certainly is an outstanding player.”
Calipari wouldn’t indicate whether Jarrod Polson, who had 11 points and six rebounds, would start at point guard again after making his first start. Ryan Harrow lost his spot to Polson and did not have a point, rebound or assist at Tennessee in 20 minutes. “We got two practices here. We’ll evaluate that and see what we do,” Calipari said.
Stallings hopes his team is better than the one UK beat in January.
“There are times when we’re scoring the ball a little bit better. Maybe our offensive play has gotten somewhat better. I wouldn’t call us an offensive juggernaut yet, but at times we’re a little bit better offensively than maybe we were a month or two ago,” Stallings said. “I still think that the thing that’s been consistent about us that’s given us a chance to win has been our defense.