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It may be difficult to fans to get the bad taste from UK’s 88-58 loss to Tennessee Saturday out of their mouths, but players are doing everything they can to move on from the embarrassing defeat.
Playing without star freshman Nerlens Noel for the first time since he went down for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, the Wildcats looked lost.
Senior guard Julius Mays thinks that the performance is not necessarily a sign of things to come.
“I just don’t think guys’ minds were right the day before leaving for Tennessee,” he said. “Worst practice of the year, by far. We just were out of it mentally and really didn’t get anything accomplished.”
But playing without Noel is not a good enough excuse for the poor performance the Wildcats exhibited versus the Volunteers, Mays added.
“I just feel like guys didn’t come to fight,” he said. “I don’t know if it was because the effect of Nerlens was still going on, but I kind of think that was a cop-out. In order to be good and to win, you’ve got to be able to play through adversity.”
Speaking Tuesday at his pregame news conference, UK head coach John Calipari called UK’s first practice since the loss at Tennessee “OK,” and noted the coaching staff had changed some routines that are making players think more.
Still, Calipari doesn’t expect to be able to determine if the new post-Noel strategies are working until he sees his team in game action.
“The only way you can learn what’s working and not working is in the games,” he said. “Then you have some time to adjust, a day or two, and then you’ve gotta throw it in the next game. That’s where we are.”
Whether or not the Cats have enough time remaining in the season to make those practice adjustments and still establish a competent NCAA Tournament resume remains to be seen.
Their next challenge comes Wednesday versus Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena. UK earned a 60-58 win versus the Commodores in their January meeting in Nashville, but they are coming off a win versus a Texas A&M team that already won in Rupp Arena this season.
If the Cats are to thrive without Noel, they will need several key players to return to their earlier season form before they can even consider making up for Noel’s lost production.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin leads UK with a 13.6 points-per-game average on the season but is averaging just eight points in his last five games. He has 13 assists and 14 turnovers in that span.
Sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow has not scored in UK’s last two games, both of which were losses. He has one assist and three turnovers in those contests and came off the bench for 18 minutes before fouling out at Tennessee.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress appeared to elevate his play with a 20 point performance versus LSU followed by a 15 point performance at Ole Miss, but he is averaging just 5.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in his last five games. He also came off the bench and fouled out at Tennessee.
“We know we’ve got to come to fight,” Mays said. “If anybody’s not willing to fight, we don’t want them to be part of it. We need everybody that we have here, and it’s going to take all of us. We can’t have one player not on the same page as us. I let it be known, and I think guys have accepted it.”
With back-to-back losses to Florida and Tennessee, UK has suffered more than one multiple-game losing streak in a season for the first time in the Calipari Era. This team also matched the previous worst loss for Calipari at UK against the Gators before suffering a new low versus Tennessee.
UK no longer has a win against a RPI-top 50 team, as Ole Miss dropped to No. 51 in the most recent RPI rankings released by the NCAA.
Even if Ole Miss ends up in the RPI top 50, the Cats will need to establish a quality win without Noel for their tournament resume. They have opportunities remaining against Missouri and Florida at home.
But before the Cats can think about quality wins, they’ll need to make major improvements from their last two contests. Both Mays and Calipari still think that’s possible.
“We can make what we want of this season,” Calipari said. “Whatever we want to make of this season, we can do. We could be the story of the year — of recovery and all that. We can do that if they chose to do that. And we don’t have to win every game. You just have to know that we’ve got to keep getting better and figure out how this team has to play and then see how we can do it and how we can march on.”