KNOXVILLE – Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes knows first-hand how good a defender Kentucky center Nerlens Noel was before he went down for the season with a torn ACL on Tuesday.
“He’s probably the best shot blocker in college basketball, period,” Stokes said Friday before the Vols began final preparations for the Wildcats (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS). “He’s definitely one of the harder guys to score on.”
Guard Jordan McRae, who, like Stokes, had a shot blocked by Noel in Tennessee’s 75-65 loss in Lexington on Jan. 15, agreed with Stokes’ assessment.
“Even when he’s not going to block your shot, you think he is,” said McRae. “He affects the game in some kind of way every time down.”
And while no Tennessee player was happy to see Noel crumple to the ground in Gainesville this past week, there’s no denying that the absence of the 6-10, shot-blocking freshman phenom changes Kentucky, a team that had won five straight before Noel’s injury at Florida.
“They have three or four guys on the perimeter that can make plays, obviously [Noel is] a major loss defensively – a guy of that caliber and what he brings to the table,” coach Cuonzo Martin said on Friday.
Added Stokes: “When you take [Noel] away, I think that changes the team.”
But Kentucky does have some answers on the interior even without Noel, a former five-star recruit and the No. 2 player in the class of 2012, according to Rivals.com. Coach John Calipari will likely turn to Willie Cauley-Stein, another former highly-touted prep star, for additional minutes inside.
Though he doesn’t possess the shot-blocking prowess of Noel, athletic, 7-foot post players such like Cauley-Stein still make getting to the rim difficult.
“They still have a good player in Cauley-Stein, who is also 7-foot, so I think they should still be good,” Stokes said.
Though Kentucky’s defense will take a hit, the Wildcats could have somewhat of a tactical advantage on the Vols Saturday. Outside of the second half at Florida, Martin has seen almost no film on the Wildcats playing without Noel.
It will mean more minutes for Kyle Wiltjer, a 6-10 forward, who plays and shoots more like a guard. The sophomore is shooting 40.8 percent from behind the arc this season, good for second in the SEC.
“I don’t know how it changes them as a team,” Martin said. “I haven’t seen them without him outside of [the Florida game]. But they still score the ball. They have a lot of weapons that score the ball.”
Martin didn’t commit to a starting five on Friday, but said the Vols would be ready to match up with Kentucky whether the Wildcats go big or small. The four-guard lineup of McRae, Trae Golden, Josh Richardson and Armani Moore paired with Stokes at Vanderbilt helped UT to one of its better offensive performances of the year in a 58-46 win in Nashville earlier this week.
That left forward Kenny Hall off the floor, but the former starter could be back in the picture on Saturday.
“He was never out of the equation in terms of him not playing well I just thought last game the matchup – it gave us the best chance to win the game,” Martin said of Hall.
A limited number of tickets were still available as of Friday afternoon, but Martin and the players are expecting a big-game atmosphere when the Big Blue comes on Saturday. With or without Noel, that’s just how the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry goes.
“The history and the tradition speak for itself,” Martin said. “Of course there’s a lot at stake.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga