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Kentucky Basketball: The Wildcats Without Nerlens

The loss of Nerlens Noel is a blow to the team, both because Nerlens is such a wonderful young man but also a dominant player. As hard as it is to look past the human element of his injury, Kentucky still has seven remaining games in the regular season as well as the SEC tournament and they must find a way to play without him.


There is no good way to estimate what the loss of Nerlens will mean for the on-court performance by the Cats, but one method to try is to look at how Kentucky played when Nerlens was off the floor. Statsheet provides this information for many of Kentucky's games and the remainder can be determined relatively quickly by looking at the play-by-play accounts on the UK website.

To start, here is how the Kentucky offense has played with and without Nerlens for three sets of games this year. The "Top Opponents" line are the conference games plus Maryland, Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor, and Louisville.

Points Scored per 40 minutes

With Noel Without Noel Difference
Season 72.3 83.8 -11.5
Top Opponents 66.8 72.5 -5.7
SEC 70.3 64.0 6.3

Before we get into what this means for the Cats going forward, take a moment and appreciate how Nerlens has helped to improve the offense this year. Early in the season he was a drag, but we've seen him improve during the season and you can see what his presence on the court meant for the team in conference play, even if his game was limited on that side of the floor.

The obvious candidates to pick up the slack are Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, and Kyle Wiltjer.

MPG ORtg Poss% Shot%
Nerlens Noel 31.9 109.3 18.1 15.7
Willie Cauley-Stein 20.0 114.5 19.5 19.6
Alex Poythress 25.5 108.4 23.1 20.3
Kyle Wiltjer 24.4 116.1 21.6 25.8

In his minutes, WCS has been more efficient than Nerlens while taking more shots. We know Alex Poythress has the tools to be a dominant player around the basket. Kyle Wiltjer has a terrific all-around offensive game and getting him inside the paint more can only help. Between these three players Calipari has a number of different skill sets he can utilize to offset Nerlen's lost production.

We won't know how those players will be utilized, but we might see more time for a lineup with 3 guards, Poythress, and Wiltjer that spreads the floor and gives AP room to handle the ball around the basket or Wilt more chances to back down his man around the rim and either take a shot or kick out if the defense collapses. Whatever Cal comes up with, the players have the talent to make it work - it's just a matter of execution.

The real loss of course is on defense.

Points Allowed per 40 minutes

With Noel Without Noel Difference
Season 61.9 64.4 -2.5
Top Opponents 64.8 72.9 -8.0
SEC 63.7 68.0 -4.3

Just like with the offense, Nerlens' defense has become increasingly more important to Kentucky as the season has gone on. This is particularly obvious when Kentucky has played their toughest competition - they are simply a different team defensively when Noel is not on the floor. It's not just the blocked shots - he affects every element of the team's defense in ways that simply cannot be replaced by anyone else.

DR% Blk% Stl%
Nerlens Noel 21.5 12.7 3.8
Willie Cauley-Stein 17.3 7.6 2.2
Alex Poythress 17.0 1.5 0.8
Kyle Wiltjer 13.6 1.7 1.1

Even after adjusting for playing time, Noel blocked more shots and forced nearly as many steals as WCS, AP, and Wilt combined. Kentucky doesn't force many turnovers to begin with and Noel's steals were nearly always the result of individual effort. There is simply no way to replace them. Defensive rebounding might be a bit easier - it will take a concerted effort by everyone else on the team including the guards, but it's possible for teams to be good on the glass even if they lack size.

The loss of a shot blocker is going to change how Harrow, Mays, and Goodwin guard on the perimeter. They've been able to stay up on opponents around the arc to prevent 3-pt attempts, knowing that if they get beat Noel had their back. It didn't always work as well as it did last year, but that's been the plan. That may have to change now, with the guards staying back more to dissuade drives to the rim. That in turn is going to result in more 3-pt attempts by opponents: not ideal, but Calipari may not have a choice.

Even in a down year for the SEC, the remainder of the schedule will not be easy. Kentucky will not only have to replace Noel's offense - they will need to improve on it in order to offset the loss on defense.