KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Nerlens or no Nerlens, John Calipari said his team had Saturday’s 30-point beating coming its way.
“The way we played and the way they played, even if we had Nerlens, we would’ve gotten beat big,” Coach Cal said. “With Nerlens we would’ve gotten beat because we had two or three guys that couldn’t play in the game.”
In their first game since losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury, the results were nearly disastrous.
Playing shell-shocked and defeated without their best player, the Wildcats (17-8, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) not only played like they were wounded, they let their blood drip in the water. Like a shiver of sharks, Tennessee hunted and killed Kentucky for it.
In the process of an 88-58 trouncing at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Volunteers destroyed any immediate hope for a successful post-Nerlens run to the postseason.
“This is their chance to get that wounded animal, and they rode the car over us a couple times,” Calipari said. “Over, back, over, back. Make sure we’re done.”
Whatever analogy you want to use, Saturday’s thrashing was a loss of unprecedented proportions for a Coach Cal team at Kentucky.
By losing by 30 points – the Cats trailed by 39 at one point – UK posted its worst loss under Calipari by a long shot. The previous margin was 17 points, suffered Tuesday when the Cats lost at Florida and Nov. 24, 2010 against Connecticut in Maui.
It was also the program’s first 30-point loss since losing by 41 at Vanderbilt on Feb. 12, 2008.
“It’s a huge loss with Nerlens, but that’s no excuse,” said sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, who scored a team-high 18 points. “We’ve got plenty of capable guys. We’ve got to bring it. We’ve got to bring higher intensity, play harder.”
Without Noel in the middle to block shots, the Volunteers drove confidently and frequently for easy baskets. With each Tennessee basket, the Vols’ swagger grew and UK’s doubts multiplied. Saturday marked only the fourth time an opponent has shot 50 percent or better against a Calipari-coached Kentucky team.
One of the few bright spots on an otherwise miserable day for the Cats, Polson scored a career-high 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting from the field and 4-of-4 shooting from the free-throw line. The junior was one of the few who provided energy when things turned for the worst in Knoxville.
“They deserved to beat us by 50 today,” Coach Cal said. “They played harder, they played rougher, they executed better, they were stronger with the ball. We just had passive guys that did not want to make plays.”
Needing more than a few good men to step up in Noel’s absence, the Cats got a passable effort from just two Wildcats, according to Calipari: Jarrod Polson and Julius Mays.
Polson, making his first career start in place or the reeling Ryan Harrow, scored a career-high 11 points and brought consistent energy when few others did. Mays hit three 3-pointers for 12 points.
“He and Julius fought,” Coach Cal said. “Two guys battled. Two guys!”
Other than those two and Wiltjer, it looked as though Kentucky waved the white flag long before the game.
After watching what he called the worst practice in his four years at UK on Friday, Calipari said he a feeling a result like Saturday was coming. Calipari said it appeared as though guys were worried about stepping up and replacing Noel, which made his team anxious and exhausted.
“If you watched practice, you kind of said, ‘Uh oh,’ ” Calipari said.
Everything that could go wrong Saturday did go wrong.
Tennessee’s 58.0-percent shooting, its plus-18 rebounding margin and its 25-of-31 mark from the free-throw line was already a recipe for disaster, but UK also didn’t get the benefit of some calls, especially a pivotal one in the first half.
Losing 19-10 midway through the first half, Kentucky should have gotten the ball on jump-ball situation when a Tennessee shot was wedged between the rim and the backboard. The possession arrow should have been pointing UK’s way since UT won the tip, but the ball was given back to Tennessee. The Vols, as they did all game, made someone pay for it, drilling a 3-pointer just three seconds later.
“Then they go on a run and all of a sudden the game is over right away, right after that,” Calipari said.
The 3 was not only part of a game-changing 19-2 run, it led to assistant coach John Robic’s ejection during the next timeout. Official Doug Shows tossed Robic.
“They got the call wrong and he was disappointed about it and said something,” Coach Cal said. “I don’t think he said enough to get tossed, but he did.”
The Cats picked up two other technical fouls in the game, one on Willie Cauley-Stein and one on Goodwin. Both appeared to be retaliation fouls when things got physical in the second half and the game was already out of reach.
“My thing was, why would you do that?” Calipari said when asked about Goodwin’s extracurricular foul. “Why wouldn’t you fight for balls? The guy pushed him in the back with two hands and he came up and pushed him, but my point is don’t do that now, you’re down 30. Why wouldn’t you fight as the game is in the balance?”
By that time, the Cats already had a fork in them.
Three players had already fouled out, including UK’s two biggest front-court players left, Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, and Calipari said guys were hearing one thing in the timeout and walking out and doing the opposite.
“We’ve got a couple guys that are basically not real coachable,” Coach Cal said. “You tell them over and over and over what you want to do, what we have to do, and they do their own thing. That’s where we are. When they realize that if we don’t do this all together we’re going to have many more of these, they’ll change.”
And Calipari and the Cats believe they can still change with six regular-season games to go.
Polson said they’ve got to stay positive and not look at Saturday as an “end-of-the-season type thing” while Coach Cal hopes that Saturday’s loss was so embarrassing that it will finally make his players buy in.
“What a great experience we’re going to have to go through because now you’re going to really find out about yourself,” Coach Cal said. “Look, it’s been eight years since we’ve had stuff like this happen. Eight years! So now good, now me as a coach, how are you going to deal with it? Are you going to quit on your guys or are you going to coach them? Are you going to try to make them better? Is it about your or is it about them? If they are struggling, how are you going to get them right? … I’m going to try whatever I can, and at the end of the day, let’s see where it goes.”
Calipari isn’t giving up on his guys. He believes they still have it in them to change.
“You just hope they have it in them to be tougher, to be more focused, to play for each other versus playing for yourself,” Coach Cal said. “You hope it’s in there, and I believe it is or they wouldn’t be there. But right now we’re not showing that.”