This was a dangerous matchup, Kentucky versus Mississippi State. Not that State was a dangerous team, mind you.
Far from it.
The Bulldogs were every bit as bad as advertised. Injuries, disciplinary moves, lack of talent – it all added up to a woeful team coming off the worst loss in the history of its current homecourt. And when it fell behind 24-8 in the early minutes at Rupp Arena Tuesday night, the only question was final margin.
The Wildcats made their share of mistakes, as always, but the offense was more of the free-wheeling sort that was on display in the victory over a much more challenging Missouri team. So there was another question at play: Is Kentucky better offensively with Nerlens Noel on the sideline?
Clearly, the Cats don’t protect the rim as well with him gone, although Willie Cauley-Stein is showing more signs of becoming comfortable in the role of full-time stopper. But what’s even more apparent is the fact that the Wildcats are changing the way they attack the basket themselves, and it was clearly evident against the overmatched Bulldogs Wednesday night.
Noel’s low-post game was coming along, however deliberately, when he suffered the season-ending injury. His jump-hook was getting better, and so were the moves he was developing to put himself in a position to shoot it.
But the low post was where he lived, meaning his defender was always there as well. And that meant trouble when Archie Goodwin would take off for the rim – or Ryan Harrow, or Alex Poythress.
Cauley-Stein , while his offensive game is anything but polished, is more comfortable roaming a bit farther from the basket, which frees up more space for his teammates.
“We're opening up the court more, trying to play with a spaced court, because we do shoot the three well,” John Calipari said. “It gives us lanes to the rim for layups. We're not full enough to play in a tight court and get to the basket. “
To Cauley-Stein, it was simply a matter of basic basketball. “It’s just playing ball,” he said, “not a lot of X’s and O’s. Just setting screens and move the ball, then someone is going to be open.”
And it happened a lot against Mississippi State. All five starters scored in double figures, and Kentucky shot 54.8 percent from the field. It’s the third game in a row that the Wildcats topped the 50 percent mark. And if you’re scoring at home, all three of those games were without Noel. However, it was happening before he was injured as well – the Cats are 11-0 this season when making at least half their shots.
This is not to say that they’re a better team without Noel, or that he was holding them back from whatever greatness they might still be trying to reach this season. He was a dynamic force in college basketball and helped give this UK team something of an identity.
Only now, it’s going to be different. Instead of a team that will put the clamps on you at one end of the floor while searching for an offensive flow at the other, perhaps Kentucky will be the team that gets a handful of blocks from Cauley-Stein and then opens the floor, in search for various routes to the bucket.
“It’s more so, you have to create your own,” Harrow said. “Whoever has the ball, you have to create your own shot or get a shot for somebody else.”
That would be the trust to which Calipari has referred all year. Giving up a shot for the sake of a teammate implies that a player is confident that if he gives up the ball, at some point, he’ll get it back. What’s amazing is the timing – less than two weeks after losing the potential number one pick in the NBA, the Wildcats seem to be taking a crucial step forward.
“Look, this team, what we've been through in the last 10 days, you think about it,” Calipari said. “What this team has been through, what we've had to do to adjust to all the things happening around us. We had dirt thrown on us 10 days ago. The coffin was nailed shut and the dirt was thrown on us. Now all of a sudden we're like, Wait a minute, what's just happened, in 10 days? And they're feeling good about themselves. They should. I'm proud of them.”
They’re figuring out a way to do something the people who had surrounded them, the ones with the coffin nails and shovels full of dirt, didn’t think was possible: Winning without Nerlens Noel.
They’re just finding another way to do it.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)