Kentucky’s first game without Nerlens Noel could not have gone worse

Nine minutes into Kentucky's humbling 88-58 loss at Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, referees ejected Wildcats assistant John Robic for disputing a call during a timeout.

Clearly Robic had the right idea. At least he didn't have to watch the rest of a dispiriting loss.

In a game billed as a litmus test for how Kentucky will fare now that Nerlens Noel is lost to a season-ending left knee injury, the Wildcats looked utterly defenseless without him. A sometimes anemic Tennessee team that three times this season has failed to produce 50 points in an entire game hung half a hundred on Kentucky by halftime en route to its most lopsided victory ever over the Wildcats.

Not all the defensive breakdowns were a result of Noel's absence, but Kentucky certainly missed the nation's leading shot-blocker's energy and ability to rebound and protect the rim.

Tennessee attacked the basket off the dribble without fear of having its shots swatted, attempting 31 free throws and shooting 58 percent from the field for the game despite missing its first seven shots. Guard Trae Golden led all scorers with 24 points on only eight shots, helping the Vols build a 19-point lead 10 minutes into the first half and expand it to as many as 39 after halftime.

An exasperated John Calipari told reporters in Knoxville after the game that he saw the meltdown coming to an extent.

"Yesterday was our worst practice in four years," Calipari said. "They haven’t beaten us in a while and they got a chance to get that wounded animal. They rolled the car over us a couple times.”

If defending national champion Kentucky wasn't already in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament prior to the Noel injury on Tuesday night, the Wildcats (17-8, 8-4) certainly are now.

Even before Noel went down, Kentucky's most notable victory was a road win against an Ole Miss team that itself is fading toward the bubble. The Wildcats will need to close out the season strong and prove to the selection committee they're worthy of a bid even without Noel, a challenge amplified by a remaining schedule that includes home games against Missouri and Florida and a visit to Arkansas.

Based on everything that went wrong Saturday, there's no reason to believe Kentucky can win any of those three games.

• John Calipari attempted to motivate point guard Ryan Harrow by benching him in favor of Jarrod Polson. It didn't work. Harrow fouled out after 18 minutes with zero points, zero assists and only one field goal attempt.

• Willie Cauley-Stein, the 7-footer counted on to fill the void left by Noel, was nearly as invisible as Harrow. He had two points, two rebounds and four turnovers when he fouled out with over nine minutes to play, slamming his headband to the ground in disgust on his way to the bench.

• It wasn't any better for fellow freshmen Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, both of whom continue to underachieve. Poythress fouled out with four points just before Cauley-Stein did and Goodwin managed just seven points and played poorly enough for Calipari to reportedly tell him before halftime, "I can't coach you."

The bright spots were Polson and Julius Mays, who both scored in double figures and played hard until the final buzzer. But obviously that itself is telling. Those two veterans needed to be role players, not stars, if Kentucky was going to even approach the heights Calipari's previous three teams have reached.

Calipari insisted he hasn't lost all hope for his team, noting, "I’ve had seasons where it looked awful and (took) off." Nonetheless, he did admit there were no silver linings to Saturday's performance.

"This one, I’ll burn the tape," he told reporters. "I’m not watching this one. I had to sit through it."

Fifteen minutes still remained in the loss when CBS spared most of the nation from having to watch the rest of the blowout by cutting away to the conclusion of Marquette's victory over Pittsburgh.

Undoubtedly, there were no complaints from Kentucky fans. Those who still were in front of their TVs probably wished the network had done it sooner.

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