Vols first team to test Noel-less Wildcats

Vols first team to test Noel-less Wildcats

February 16th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee's Jordan McRae shoots over Alabama's Trevor Lacey during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Jordan McRae's name is on the list.

Tennessee's leading scorer remembers how it got there, too.

Nerlens Noel, Kentucky's shot-swatting freshman, blocked 106 shots in 24 games this season and victimized McRae once in the Wildcats' 75-65 win against the Volunteers in Lexington last month.

"He blocked me kind of hard, too," McRae recalled Friday afternoon with a chuckle.

McRae and Tennessee won't have to worry about that happening again.

When Kentucky visits Tennessee this afternoon, it'll be the Wildcats' first venture without Noel, ESPN's projected top pick in June's NBA draft who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee earlier this week in Kentucky's loss at Florida.

The heart and soul of coach John Calipari's fourth Kentucky team, Noel impacted games much like Anthony Davis did last season on the way to becoming the No. 1 pick in last year's NBA draft. Noel blocked only 10 fewer shots than Anthony did at the same point last season. In 11 SEC games, the 6-foot-10, 228-pound leaper with long arms and skinny legs blocked 60 shots -- more than any of the league's 13 other teams.

"At all times, you know where someone like that is at, and even when he's not going to block your shot, you think he is," McRae said. "He affects the game in some kind of way every time down. But them not having him, they're still a great team, they're just not going to have somebody in the paint with that kind of presence that he had.

"Losing a guy like that on their team who was worth so much for them, I think they're going to come out playing real hard trying to prove they can move on without him."

How exactly Calipari and Kentucky will do that is a bit of a mystery, one which the Vols will get the first crack at solving.

"I don't know how it changes them as a team because I haven't seen them really play without him, outside of 12 minutes in the second half against Florida," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "They have a lot of weapons in scoring the ball. Obviously it's a major loss defensively.

"We don't spend a lot of time trying to consume ourselves with how they're going to play. I don't know how much time you can change a game plan over the course of the season, [much less] in two days. We know what they do best, we know how they score the ball and we go from there."

Though he's missed four games and blocked only six shots in SEC play, Willie Cauley-Stein is a bulky 7-footer who can affect things in the paint. Guard Archie Goodwin and forwards Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer, both of whom can score inside and out, have higher scoring averages than Noel this season. The Wildcats may play more zone defense without Noel patrolling the paint.

"They still should be good," said Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, who enters the game with a double-double streak of six games. "[Noel's] such a good shot-blocker, and he's not a weak guy. He still has a little strength to him, so he's definitely one of the harder guys to score on.

"This is a great opportunity. We're going to be in a great environment. We usually always play better at home."

Even without Noel, Kentucky is still Kentucky. The Wildcats won't be short on talent, while the Vols view this game as bigger than others.

"The fans and the atmosphere create everything for you, but for us it's winning a basketball game and doing everything in our power to protect our home court," Martin said. "The history and tradition speaks for itself. Of course there's a lot at stake."

For Kentucky, Noel's absence means a lot is missing, too.

"We're going to do what we're going to do," McRae said. "They don't have [another] shot-blocker like him. Nobody's going to replace what he's doing for them.

"They're still a team that's going to come in and, if you're not careful, beat you by about 20."