Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: 'Cats adjusting nicely to life without Noel

Willie Cauley-Stein: Taking care of business - Andy Lyons

Since the loss of Nerlens Noel followed by a blowout loss to Tennessee, the Wildcats appear to be surging, strengthening their resolve as they vie to take care of business.

After suffering through a tortuous 30 point loss to Tennessee in Kentucky's first game without injured star Nerlens Noel, the 'Cats have rebounded nicely -- both figuratively and literally -- to put together three consecutive wins in fine fashion. While not playing a Who's Who of college basketball elite in the three game streak -- Vanderbilt (12-15), Missouri (20-8), Mississippi State (7-20) -- Kentucky (20-8, 11-4) has built a bit of confidence, and displayed it can indeed win ball games without its fallen star in the lineup.

"Look, this team, what we've been through the last 10 days, you think about it," UK head coach John Calipari said about the adversity his club has recently faced. "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," Calipari continued. "The coffin was nailed shut and we had dirt thrown on us. Now all of the sudden we're like, 'Wait a minute, what's just happened'" in the last 10 days. "And they're feeling good about themselves. They should, I'm proud of them."

Cauley-Stein delivers

Calipari's pride has to begin with the play of Noel's replacement in the middle, Willie Cauley-Stein. Not only has Cauley-Stein increased his scoring output from 7.5 points per game (prior to Noel's injury), to 13.0 points per contest in the last three games, but the 7-footer is also hitting the boards like a champ, snagging an average of 8.3 rebounds per game, a full three more boards per contest. Additionally, replacing the nation's top shot blocker has been a study in "Swattage 101," as Cauley-Stein has rejected 13 shots over the last three games.

The big man's playing time, which has increased by almost 12 minutes per contest, initially was a problem, as WCS struggled to play through fatigue.

"Coach just kept on saying you have to fight through it, when we hit the stretch you have to play more," Cauley-Stein said about his conditioning. "I'm just trying to train my lungs into going more and then sub myself out."

Whatever Cauley-Stein is doing to "train" his lungs seems to be working. His cumulative field goal percentage in the last three games, 70.8 percent (17-24), is miles better than the 57.3 percent he shot pre-Noel injury. This has allowed Kentucky to boast a legitimate low-scoring threat, while opening up the perimeter for the 'Cats' long-range bombers to do their work.

That, along with UK's ball movement and spacing have allowed the Wildcats to continue to be offensively competent.

"It's just playing ball, not a lot of X's and O's," Cauley-Stein said about UK's offensive game plan. "Just setting screens, and moving the ball, then someone will be open."

Life without Noel, though, has not been easy for UK's lone man in the middle as he has struggled like his teammates to adjust to playing without the "heart and soul" of the team.

"It's still empty," WCS said about not having Noel in the game. "We're always going to have that empty feeling but we're just coming together as a team now."

Perhaps the most important element of UK's bouncing back from what could have been a disastrous scenario was touched on by WCS as he noted that "Guys are starting to listen to what coach has to say and it's just falling into place."

Falling into place, indeed.

Harrow not harrowing

"We just all got together and talked and said we wanted to turn this around," UK point guard Ryan Harrow said about the team's about-face. "We are starting to have fun and playing together better."

Having fun and playing together has brought out the best in the previously slumping Harrow, as he has cast aside whatever demons he was battling, and is currently playing his best basketball of the season in the midst of a 'Cat fight for the SEC regular season title.

How drastic was Harrow's turnaround? In a three game stretch starting with a home tilt against Auburn on February 19, followed by road games against Florida and Tennessee, UK's point guard dished out only two assists in 63 minutes of action. Harrow connected on only 3-of-11 shots and was shut out of the scoring column in games versus the Gators and Vols.

Hardly productive numbers, as Harrow was clearly floundering, finally being pulled from the starting lineup in UK's first game without Noel. Then, as if a switch was flipped to the 'on' position, Harrow met hard times head-on, and in the last three contests has played like the lead guard of a top ranked outfit:

  • In an average of 34.7 minutes per game, Harrow has made 18-of-32 field goals (56.3 percent), 8-of-10 free throws, and dished out 4.7 dimes per game against an average of one turnover. After being admonished by Cal to rebound, rebound the basketball, Harrow has hit the boards with abandon, snagging five, eight, and seven rebounds in each of the last three games.

"That feels good," Harrow said about his increased rebounding numbers. "Coach told us since Nerlens is out we just had to start rebounding more, especially with teams that shoot a lot of threes, (because) the ball is going to fly out farther to where the point guards are at."

3-point stance

Fortunately, there haven't been an abundance of Kentucky's 3-point tries "flying out farther to where the point guards are at," as the 'Cats, led by grad student Julius Mays, have torched the nets from distance:

  • In the last three games, the Wildcats have found the bottom of the sack on 20-of-51 shots from beyond the arc (39.2 percent) behind the on-target shooting of Mays (9-19, 47.4 percent), Archie Goodwin -- yeah, you read that right -- (3-7, 42.9 percent), and Alex Poythress (2-4, 50.0 percent).

Poythress and Goodwin goodness

Speaking of Poythress and Goodwin, the two most maddeningly talented players on the squad -- emphasis on maddeningly -- have been a steadying influence as the 'Cats claw back from Noel's injury:

  • In the last three contests, Poythress has made 18-of-30 shots from the field (60.0 percent), 15-of-21 the last two games (71.4 percent), and is averaging 14.7 points per contest, an increase of nearly three points per game.
  • Goodwin, who has struggled all season with shot selection, has connected on 18-of-36 shots from the floor (50.0 percent), a significant increase on his 42.9 percent shooting on the year, and grabbed 4.0 rebounds per game while averaging 15.0 points.

"It's got to be him doing it because it's who he is, not because of the opponent or the coach or the punishment," Calipari said about Poythress' motivation for his improved play. "He has made unbelievable strides. But he is way beyond where's he's been with his effort, with his ability, with his toughness, taking charge, talking, his body language. All that stuff has improved immensely. It's good to see."

Amen to that, Coach!

Taking care of business

As the 'Cats encounter a stretch of games which will most likely determine their March Madness fate, hope abounds. For as Kentucky travels to Arkansas and Georgia, then back to Rupp Arena for the regular season finale against the Florida Gators, the Wildcats will have their sights firmly set on, not just receiving a Big Dance invite, but making a little music along the way.

The 'Cats have overcome the loss of Noel, and put the UT debacle behind them. Now, it's T.C.B. time.

"I told them after the (Mississippi State) game, what we've been through the last 10, 12 days, talk to me," Calipari said about the strides the 'Cats have made. "Who had to change what they're doing; grieving for your best player, (then) all of the sudden, you're still alive, and now you're looking everything in the eyeballs and you're saying, 'We're in good shape. Let's just keep taking care of business.'"

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett

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