LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It is a rare thing in college basketball to be presented with a fresh start in the middle of February, even rarer for a University of Kentucky team to face that scenario.
Yet that's what the Wildcats have after the unfortunate loss of Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL. Nobody inside or outside the program would've chosen for UK to be in this situation. But now that the Wildcats are here, there is opportunity amid the adversity.
UK's NCAA Tournament fortunes likely will be determined by what happens beginning Saturday at Tennessee, not by what has happened before. And while expectations have been dialed down (Las Vegas adjusted UK's odds to win the NCAA title from 25-1 to 50-1), UK coach John Calipari still finds himself with a handful of NBA talent and a chance to play a role nobody thought would be possible this season -- overachiever.
"This team has a clean slate," Calipari said Friday. "It's a blank canvas. It's whatever they want it to be. We just all of us, and fans, just fight compete and battle. . . . I think we can still be good. We've got good players."
Gone should be the pressure of living up to the preseason ranking and last season's national championship. You can throw away the apprehension over falling flat and not making the NCAA Tournament.
All of which is well and good, but only goes so far in moving UK forward without its most talented player.
On first thought, you'd think UK can replace Noel's points and rebounds. But remember, the guy was averaging 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. He was shooting 59 percent from the field. He was a better offensive player than he was given credit for, and he was improving. Also, Noel was playing nearly 32 minutes a game, something no single replacement is likely to make up.
Still, Willie Cauley-Stein is a more traditional post scorer, and has the ability to post big rebounding numbers himself.
"All I told him is 'just be you,'" Calipari said. "'You know what you do well, be you, sub yourself when you're ready to go. You'll play every minute you can play. Stay on the floor. You're not Nerlens, but Nerlens is not you. There's things you do well that Nerlens didn't do well. So you just be you. You don't have to be anything else.'"
What the loss of Noel primarily does to UK is force it to completely remake itself defensively. Locking down perimeter players has not been an emphasis at UK, because Noel as a shot-blocker has been not only an effective last line of defense, but an effective first line. UK funneled penetrators into the lane, where Noel waited.
Now, there will be more pressure on UK's perimeter defenders to take care of business, to contain ballhandlers, and to keep drivers from bombarding Cauley-Stein and getting him into foul trouble.
Also, without the kind of shot-blocker they've had for the past two seasons, UK is going to have to do something it has not worried about doing in a while -- forcing turnovers. It's going to have to get a bit more aggressive on top, and look for a few more steals. Noel was averaging 2 steals a game himself.
Calipari said he can't remake everything. But that individual players need to elevate their games, and that they have to play better together.
"We've only had one practice (without Noel), so you can't be that much different," he said. "You just want everybody do a little bit more. Obviously we can make up rebounds and points. Those blocked shots are what you're not going to make up. So, we'll see."
Calipari said the team has continued to work on its zone, and is prepared to play it for long stretches if needed. He said Cauley-Stein is getting his chance, and that Jon Hood is getting a chance at additional playing time.
Calipari said he thinks this team will continue to go in the right direction. "We've just got to have guys out there ballin'."
It's not the kind of new start anybody at UK wanted to deal with. But it's also a chance, with seven games left, to write an intriguing ending on what has been up to now a fairly flat script.