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Coach Cal remains optimistic after Noel injury

Devastating was the initial feeling

That was John Calipari’s first comment once it became official that Nerlens Noel was out for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Even when the dust settled Wednesday evening, the news still felt devastating for everyone — devastating for Noel, devastating for Coach Cal and devastating for UK.

The fact that Noel will be missed won’t change between now and the end of the season, but Calipari took to his call-in radio show Wednesday night to tell the Big Blue Nation that, while devastating, the loss of Noel isn’t the end for UK, Noel or this season. Coach Cal talked in depth about Noel bouncing back, how UK can cope without him and who will have to step up in his analysis.

If you wanted more than the initial quote Calipari put out earlier Wednesday, well, here are another 2,369 words from him:

On losing Nerlens Noel for the season …
“In 20-something years, this is the first time (it’s happened while I’ve been head coach), which it makes it even more devastating because I’ve got to deal with this young man and his family along with, OK, now the team changes. The thing I will tell you is (we were) on and off without a point guard (early in the year) and then Willie (Cauely-Stein) goes down for two weeks and now this the last few weeks of the season.

“The one thing I want to tell you, because we’re all concerned, when you see it you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ It could have been career ending. It looked that way, and it’s not. But, I want all of our fans to know he was insured. If it was career ending, he would have been an instant millionaire at home because he is insured, and a bunch of our guys are insured that way. It’s not (career ending). It’s an injury that Adrian Peterson came back from and became the MVP. I don’t want to say it’s common, but it’s a common injury now for high-level athletes. They’ve got it down. He will be with the best doctors. There’s a few in our country that are the best in the world, and he will be with one of those guys.

“There’s two parts to this: One, adversity hits all of us. That’s just how it is. You don’t go through life unscathed. This is another great life lesson for all of us on this staff and for Nerlens. Things don’t just go the next step up. He now has to use this time to, one, he’s really got to rehab. Two, it’s a great time to work on his upper body because he can’t do anything on his wheels. And three, maybe skills, shooting free throws, shooting from a chair, you can do different things now. Get academically absolutely in order. Because I told him this: He will in all likelihood still have an opportunity if he wants to put his name in the draft. He will, and it’s not going to move much. But I told him, don’t feel pressed, because after going through six or seven month of rehab, you may say, ‘I’m not ready now to walk into a training camp that’s all new and I’m not (ready).’ Well, then you come back and you be the best big man in the country again. That’s his option. He’s got some work to do.

Alex Poythress will have to play a much bigger role without Nerlens Noel in the middle. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

“And then one guy’s misery becomes another man’s opportunity. Look, I still have a good team. Here’s the thing about our team: Guys got to start performing. You can’t have any cop out. Guys have got to start performing now. We can’t have two and three guys playing poorly. They can’t anymore. We are having two or three guys a game not playing to the best version of themselves. Well, most of that means play harder. Play with more energy. That is not about making mistakes. Play more physical. Think about what I’m saying. Play harder, play with more energy, play with more physical, sub yourself when you’re tired. Every player in the world can do that. That’s what we’re asking. Now it becomes, alright, we’ve each got to do a little bit more.

“I’ll give you an example: How many rebounds a game does Nerlens get normally? About nine and a half. Well, let’s just say it’s 10. So let’s just say Archie (Goodwin) and Alex (Poythress) combine to get three more rebounds. A rebound a half (each). One gets 1.8 and the other gets 1.2 rebounds more than they do now. Is that really asking a lot? How about we say to Willie, ‘You’re now going to get more minutes.’ And Kyle (Wiltjer), you’ve got to come up with four more (rebounds) than you’ve been getting. Willie, you’re going to get more minutes. Kyle, you’ve got to add one more notch to your belt. Maybe Willie’s three (more rebounds) and Kyle’s one. But four between you. And then our guards, you’ve got to come up with three rebounds. They’ve got to get more rebounds. Well, that just made up for Nerlens.

“Alright, his scoring is 10 per game. Well, guys are going to get more minutes. Willie is going to get more minutes. We can make up for that. What about shot blocking? I don’t know that there’s any way to make up for that unless we’ve got someone with a broom back there.

“So now you come and say, OK, maybe we’ve got to do things a little differently now. Maybe we’ve got to trap the post a little bit. What do we have to do different to make up for his presence defensively? Maybe it’s playing a little more zone. The good news is we’re prepared for that. (We’ve been preparing for that) for awhile. Maybe that’s why that stuff happens. Fate intervenes in our lives many times – sometimes good, sometimes bad. This intervention was good for us because we’re now ready to play zone if we choose to. When we get out there and play, we may look and say we don’t have to. But, I also may want to switch around some guys now. May want to put Archie at some point guard now. Put a bigger lineup with Kyle in there. Kyle deserves to start, wouldn’t you say with the way he’s been playing? So we may switch some things around and do some things.

“But my thing to our team right now, each guy’s got to look to do three, four percent more. You don’t have to do 100 percent more. And the other thing becomes you now need each other badly. You need each other badly. And so I’m hoping now we’ve got some guys in the room that know they need each other and that we’ll just absolutely say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to have to do to win.’ I look at this right now as it’s another challenge. And for me, I looked around the room and we talked to the team and I just said, ‘Do you want to quit? Go ahead and quit the season or just stop playing. This is like life. You’ve got to go.’ So now we’ve got to figure out how we survive. How do we survive? And then when you start surviving, you start thinking about how we thrive in this environment. How many businesses went through downsizing and thought they were going under and all they thought about for months and months and maybe years, ‘Let’s survive. We must survive.’ And after they survived they what? They thrived. And you know, that’s what you do now.

“And you know what? We’re not the only team with injuries. There’s other teams with injuries. We still have enough players, but they must be the best version of themselves. You can’t come out and play 20 to 25 minutes and give us nothing. You can’t do it. You can’t. And now it’s like everybody is more responsible to do their thing. We’re only now as a team do they talk. One of the guys said, ‘We’ve got to believe in each other.’ To do that you’ve got to trust each other first and then you’ll start believing in each other. To trust each other, it’s what we’ve been talking about for months. You must talk. You must play less for yourself. You must lose yourself in the team. The team needs to know you’re out there for them so when you play poorly it doesn’t affect your effort and your intensity and your fight. So you played bad and you quit on us? We can’t trust you. You can’t do that.

“Look, I saw Michael Gilchrist against Florida in the tournament play so bad that I had to keep taking him out of the game. You know what? He got the last two rebounds that won the game. That’s how you do it. ‘Look, I’m not playing well but I’m still going to compete, and I’m not letting down this team and it’s more about this team than me.’ Now I’ve got a job to do. I come back to this: You’ve got to perform. You’ve got to be the best version of you. At least you have to prepare that way and the entire day of the game that’s what you’re thinking. ‘I’m going to be best version of me. No stinking dinking, here I come.’ So those are the things we’re not kind of zeroed in on.”

On making up for Noel’s shot-blocking presence and Noel’s decision to come back or go pro …
“From this point on we will not lead the nation in blocked shots. Last year when Anthony Davis wasn’t in the game, people were shooting layups on us. At least we have Willie in there now so it won’t be as bad. But we probably will block half as many shots as we’ve been blocking, but that’s OK. Then you have to defend a little bit differently. You’ve got to do things a little bit different. The biggest thing we’re going to have to do is we’re going to have to rebound it, those tight rebounds, because that means they’re going to grab us more. And the decision for Nerlens to come back I think will be based on the progress of his rehab and surgery in a couple weeks. It’s a six-month rehab. When he’s two or three months in, seeing that progress and then figuring out is he ready to go on to that next step. Like I told him, if you’re not ready you come back and you become the best big guy in the country. You were one of them this year; you’ll be even better next year. But that’s something that he and his family will have to go through.”

On how the game plan will change without Noel …
“Jon Hood now gets in that rotation. And let me just tell you, he has been playing good. He has been terrific at practice. 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 – 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. 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, and so now you have to think, ‘OK, what do we have to do if they throw it in the post on us or they’re driving too easily and getting layups or those kinds of things? How do you play?’ Those kinds of things we’re working out right now.”

On the sportsmanship shown at Florida and by other coaches …
“Billy Donovan called me today. I haven’t had a chance to call him back. I had some other coaches (call). I must have had 10, 15 coaches call me to check on Nerlens and I just haven’t had a chance to call those guys back. I’ve been with my own team and individuals and Nerlens is by himself and then got the team together to tell them about the Nerlens stuff, so it’s been a packed day. Again, the sportsmanship from the Florida people was outstanding.”

On the different look of the team now …
“This is like are third or fourth different team this year, and you know what, we’re heading it on. I’m interested to see because Willie has shown signs of brilliance. I think this gives Kyle a chance to where we run a lot of stuff through him. And I also think it now puts it back on Alex to be the player you should be. He should be dominating plays. You know that game, he should have dominated that game. That was the fear they had. How are they going to guard him? And then he goes 1 for 9. Come on, you know you’re better than that. Be the best version of yourself.

“We talked about it today in individual meetings. I believe in the team. I believe in these guys. I believe in our talent. 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. You and I know it. 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.”

On needing the fans …
“Our players need our fans. They need you at the game. They need the energy of that building. This is not easy playing here. There are times this becomes overwhelming, and so they need that extra edge. Our fans, maybe more than any other year, or at least the four years I’ve been here, they need those fans. They need their energy. They need your acceptance of, ‘OK, here’s where we are right now, now let’s get better,’ I would say this year more than any other.”