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February 15, 2013
Cats visit Tennessee for first post-Noel challenge
They're both tall. They both picked the same college.
So when the 25th-ranked Wildcats (17-7, 8-3 Southeastern Conference) take on Tennessee (13-10, 5-6) Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., don't expect Cauley-Stein to fill the void left by Noel, the nation's leading shot-blocker, who is out for the remainder of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
"I'm not Nerlens," Cauley-Stein said Friday. "He does things that are just uncanny, like his ability to block shots. I don't have that ability. But what I do have is (I'm) athletic (and) able to play out on a guard, just simple stuff like that and just hustle. That's all I've got to take care of."
Cauley-Stein is the probable starter in the place of Noel, who tore his ACL in Tuesday's 69-52 loss at No. 7 Florida. But he's not expecting to pick up the slack in Noel's departure.
Not all of it. No one can do that.
"(Noel) was such a strong force on the team that his presence was an impact to everybody," Cauley-Stein said. "Without it, more people just got to step up and do their job and start focusing on what the team needs them to do to win the next games that we need to win to make the tournament."
Some of that responsibility falls on Cauley-Stein. But he won't be asked to alter what he does in Noel's absence. He'll just be asked to do it better.
"You're not Nerlens (Noel), but Nerlens is not you," UK coach John Calipari said he told Cauley-Stein. "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."
He just has to be something more. His teammates do, too.
Though Noel was most impactful on the defensive end - he led UK in blocks (106), steals (50) and rebounding (9.5 per game) - he also averaged 10.5 points per game for a team that has struggled to score.
"I think we all have to step up," said guard Jon Hood, who figures to see increased minutes with Noel's season finished. "I don't think it's on any specific one player. It's on the full team."
And though there are tweaks to be made on offense and especially defense - Calipari conceded he might further experiment with the zone defense he's employed at times - UK's biggest adjustment might be in attitude.
With Noel, the Wildcats were a probable NCAA Tournament team. Without him, Kentucky's being largely written off. UK didn't make the field in the media's NCAA Tournament mock selection this week in Indianapolis.
So now it's a Cats-against-the-world approach. Hood said UK hasn't been "fully together" and that Noel's injury is the sort of thing that can pull a team closer. And Cauley-Stein said Kentucky can draw motivation from the reaction to Noel's injury.
"I remember two hours after people got the (Noel) news, people - our fans - were saying like, 'Oh, our season's over,' blah, blah, blah," Cauely-Stein said. "We still got, what, seven more games before we even get to a tournament? It can be whatever you want it to be. You can either go back or you can go forward, and I think everybody on the team's trying to make it forward."
So Kentucky has to take small steps to make up for Noel's absence, Cauley-Stein said. Each of the Wildcats' guards needs to get a rebound or two more per game, he said. Perimeter defenders - with no elite shot-blocker to erase their mistakes - have to be more committed to maintaining the dribble.
And the Cats, Cauley-Stein said, have no excuse not to give it their all in every minute of every game. The pressure's off.
"Now it's one of those things where we can be the aggressor coming into a game," Cauley-Stein said. "People don't think we're going to win without him. We've just got to step up as a team and put it together like coach is telling us to."
Calipari has told his players they can make whatever they choose out of the remaining season. Kentucky still has enough talent, he said, to get its act together down the season's home stretch.
"One guy's misery is another guy's opportunity," Calipari said, and the question is whether these Cats can seize it.
"This team has a clean slate," Calipari said. "It's a blank canvas. It's whatever they want it to be."