Jarnell Stokes talks about Nerlans Noel
Because Kentucky suffered a tear, Tennessee caught a break.
Writhing in pain, reaching for his mangled right knee on Tuesday night in Florida, star freshman Nerlens Noel changed the dynamics of not only the 25th-ranked Wildcats' season, but also Saturday's meeting with the Vols at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"We haven't gotten to play with Jeronne (Maymon) for over half a season — I can see, losing a key player, where their heads are going to be — but that's something you have to adjust to," said UT point guard Trae Golden, referring to Maymon's season-long absence due to a sore knee. "Injuries happen. That's part of the sport."
And it's now today's storyline.
A torn ACL has ended Noel's season.
Kentucky's adjustment will need to be dramatic. Noel, a 6-foot-10 telephone pole, is the nation's top shot blocker at 4.4 per game. He impacts the game all over the floor, altering shots and leading the Wildcats not only in rebounds, but steals as well.
"Someone like him, you know where he's at," said UT's Jordan McRae, who scored 23 points on 8-for-18 shooting in a 75-65 road loss to John Calipari's team on Jan. 15. "Even if he's not going to block your shot, you think he is. He affects the game in some kind of way every time down."
That can't be replaced.
The Wildcats (17-7, 8-3 SEC) have heard as much.
"People, our fans, were saying, 'Oh, our season's over,' blah, blah," UK center Willie Cauley-Stein said Friday, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. "We still have — what? — seven more games before we even get into a tournament. It can be whatever you want it to be. ...
"I mean, it's frustrating. A team is more than one player."
But that one missing player is guaranteed to be the focus of CBS's broadcast (WVLT locally) at 1 p.m. Prepare for cameras to zoom in on Noel's box-top haircut on the Kentucky bench as much as the action on the court.
Tennessee (13-10, 5-6), on the other hand, is feeling good about itself. Seems like the first time since a four-game December winning streak that can be said.
The Vols are coming off back-to-back road wins. To a man, they've argued a late-season surge is possible.
Noel or no Noel, a win over Kentucky could serve as a vault.
"It will be good to come home to our home court and have some fun," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said.
No player will be liberated by Noel's absence as much as Jarnell Stokes. Hampered by foul trouble, the Tennessee power forward played just 15 minutes and scored four points in the last meeting.
At 6-foot-8, Stokes sometimes has trouble scoring over taller, longer big men. The Wildcats still have two starters standing taller than 6-8 in Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer, and 6-foot-10 Kyle Wiltjer, but neither will be a top-three pick in this spring's NBA draft.
Noel surely would have been. And still might be.
There's no telling what solution Calipari, a mad scientist, will concoct. It'll need to be a good one. While the Vols are looking to use this game as a springboard, a Noel-less loss could crush the Wildcats' young psyches.
Calipari said he's just looking for Kentucky to "fight, battle and compete."
"If you don't, don't go in the game. Just stay out," he added.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn