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In life after Nerlens, Cats say it's about embracing the challenge, coming together

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Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 20 games before Nerlens Noel went down with an injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 20 games before Nerlens Noel went down with an injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Life after Nerlens.

That's what the Kentucky Wildcats now must face in the aftermath of the season-ending injury Nerlens Noel suffered Tuesday night at Florida.

Without Noel, the Cats not only lose the top shot blocker in the country and their leading rebounder, they lose the credibility they had built with their NCAA Tournament résumé the last few weeks in winning seven-of-eight games.

In the days after the devastating loss of Noel, UK has not only fallen off sturdy ground and onto the NCAA bubble, some even believe the Cats are on the outside looking in without Noel.

In the NCAA's annual mock tournament selection exercise that has been going on Indianapolis the past couple of days, members of the media and NCAA Tournament analysts have the Cats now out of the NCAA Tournament, if it were to start today.

"This team has a clean slate," John Calipari said Friday. "It's a blank canvas. It's whatever they want it to be."

Mike Bobinski, the selection committee chair for the NCAA Tournament, all but confirmed that earlier in the week in an interview with ESPN's Andy Katz. While the selection committee will still take Kentucky's previous body of work into consideration - which appeared to be more than strong enough to get into the field of 68 - Bobinski said UK will be evaluated on how it plays without Noel going forward.

With seven regular-season games and the Southeastern Conference Tournament left, just how good can the Wildcats be without Noel? Are they good enough to make the NCAA Tournament?

"We can be as good as we want to be," freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It's all just depending on if we're going to come together as a team and focus on what Coach is telling us and executing it."

For Coach Cal, nothing has changed. His players still need to come together as a team, buy in and play for each other.

"I'm not afraid of it," Calipari said. "I've been here - not where I've lost a player, but I've been here where you're up against it and you're not playing well. I've done this long enough. My thing and the whole vision is, let's try to make this special and unique."

If losing a player the caliber of Noel doesn't force the Cats to rally together and play for each other in the final leg of the season, nothing will, Cauley-Stein said.

"It makes you have no choice but to come together," Cauley-Stein said. "He was such a strong force on the team that his presence just impacted everybody. Without it, more people just got to step up and do their jobs and really start focusing on what the team needs them to do to win the next games that we need to win to make it to the tournament."

Fueling their fire will be a line of doubters circling the Joe Craft Center that believes Noel's loss will be too much for the Cats to overcome. After all, Noel was not only the nation's top shot blocker and UK's go-to guy in the paint, he was the first player since David Robinson in 1986-87 to average at least 10 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and two steals per game.

His value, his worth and his energy to the Cats was positively immeasurable.

"You've got to accept the challenge now," Cauley-Stein said. "I like proving people wrong, and I hope our team feels the same way. We don't have a target on our back no more ... People are already writing us off. Now it's one of those things where we can be the aggressor coming into a game where people don't think we're going to win without him. We've got to step up as a team like Coach is telling us to."

If Kentucky is able to regroup and march on with Noel, it will largely be because of Cauley-Stein.

Without the services of Noel, Cauley-Stein's minutes (20.0 per game) figure to get a significant increase. The hope is that his points (7.8 per game), rebounds (5.5) and blocks (1.7) also increase in the process, but both Calipari and Cauley-Stein cautioned from putting too much of the focus on Cauley-Stein to fill the void.

Whether it's Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer grabbing a few more rebounds down low or the guards playing better defense to limit drives, Cauley-Stein said that "everybody's equally important" now and "everybody's got to step up in (their) own different way."

"Nothing really falls on me," said Cauley-Stein, who noted that his surgically repaired knee is fine but his conditioning needs work. "It falls on the whole team."

Based on Cauley-Stein's consistent effort and contributions this season, Coach Cal isn't worried about Cauley-Stein stepping up. The only thing Coach Cal wants Cauley-Stein to focus on is being himself and not trying to be someone he's not (ahem, Noel). Sub yourself when you get tired, Calipari told him, know what you do well and "be you."

"Exactly," Cauley-Stein said. "That's exactly what it is. I'm not Nerlens. He does things that are just uncanny. His ability to block shots, I don't have that ability, but what I do have is athletic (ability), be able to play out on a guard, just simple stuff like that. And hustle. That's all I've got to take care of."

Will the Cats have to play differently? Almost certainly. Without a shot-blocking presence like Noel in the paint, Cauley-Stein said they will have to play better perimeter defense and not take so many gambles.

As Coach Cal said on his radio show Wednesday, everyone will have to do 3-4 percent more to make up for Noel's production and hustle. He also said there is a chance the Cats could go to the zone they've worked so much on to make up for Noel defensively.

But while adjustments will have to be made and adversity faced, no one else is going to feel sorry for UK. With a physical Tennessee team up next (Saturday at 1 p.m. on CBS), it's up to the Cats to create their own path into the postseason.

Cauley-Stein said he's seen signs of leadership in the last few days from a guy like Archie Goodwin, who is being more vocal, but it's going to take a collective effort from everyone to stop mourning, come together and move forward without Noel.

"It's time to go back to work," Cauley-Stein said. "It's tragic that it happened, but at the end of the day we've still got a season and we've got to take care of business."

Calipari often says that "fate intervenes" and that the Cats must play for each other. There has never been a better time to do just that.

In life after Nerlens, it's next man up.

"Look, this is a great opportunity," Calipari said. "One guy's misery is another guy's opportunity. And that's for all these guys. They have their own picture they want to paint. Let's paint it. You can look at this in one of two ways: Like, OK, can we be better? Well, let's see. Why not chase it?"

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