By LARRY VAUGHT
When UK beat Tennessee in mid-January, Nerlens Noel blocked six shots. In Saturday’s loss without Noel, the Cats had just three blocks and all came in the game’s first five minutes.
“That is a talented team, you have guys who can score the ball. We felt like offensively they were still the same team. That is a major piece (Noel),” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Marti said. “They do not go down to him every time on offense. He’s a guy who gets put-backs and dunks. The threat we felt like they would pose to us on offense was now you have four guys on the perimeter who make plays and all of the sudden Poythress is your center, Wiltjer is your four or five guy and all of the sudden they spread you out and penetrating, and I thought our guys did a good job accepting the challenge.
“Of course, defensively when you watch him on film and we felt like if there were any breakdowns in the gaps … we watched him play defensively and you are used to having a guy behind you so there is a breakdown on the perimeter and you have a guy who can block shots. You cannot all of the sudden switch him out after 20 plus games and you say, ‘Wait he is not back there anymore and you are down 15, down 20.’ That is a major piece not to have behind you.”
Tennessee guard Trae Golden, who had seven points in the first UK game, had 24 points Saturday and got to the foul line 12 times without Noel around the basket.
“I think it made a difference since they didn’t have their big man down there blocking shots. Willie Cauley-Stein can still block shots but maybe not at the same rate that Nerlens Nole could. But you know that didn’t matter for us, they are still a good team without him. We just wanted to attack and get to the rim as much as possible,” Golden said.
“I think every team has their own special shot blockers, so I just try to be the guy who attacks and makes plays for my team. But Noel is definitely someone who lets you know he is there.”