Um… easily? This feels like a trick question.
It’s a fair one, though, really, from an outsider’s perspective. Nerlens Noel was one of the best defenders we’ve seen in a long time, and with him, UK was a legitimate NCAA tournament team. Without him, well, you saw what happened. But when ESPN asks how we’ll replace him, you have to wonder if they’ve been paying attention this summer. This doesn’t mean that we won’t miss the big guy who might have had the best character since Patrick Patterson, but anybody that really needed an answer to the question must be a football person. To be fair, ESPN addressed this same topic with all 13 teams who lost a lottery pick, but still, you would think this one would just have a link to their recruiting homepage. Dana O’Neil, though, decided that if they were paying her, she might as well grab the low-hanging fruit.
Before tore his ACL in February, Noel was considered the top defensive post player in college basketball. ESPN’s Jay Bilas even referred to him as a “defensive savant.” Still, when Noel announced he was leaving school after one season to enter the NBA draft, the Wildcats hardly flinched.
“It’s a next-man-up philosophy,” Telep said. “There’s no concern about replacing guys. This is what they do. When you walk through the doors, you’re expected to replace the next guy.”
Kentucky returns projected first-round draft pick Willie Cauley-Stein in the paint. A 7-footer, Cauley-Stein made tremendous strides as a freshman but is still incredibly raw. He’ll have the luxury of playing alongside incoming freshman Julius Randle, a 6-9, 225-pounder who is almost certain to be a top-five pick in next summer’s NBA draft.
“They have a rim protector on their roster in Willie Cauley-Stein and they have another rim protector in Marcus Lee, who’s going to have to figure out a way to get on the floor as a freshman,” Telep said. “It’s not like they’re void of rim protectors. They just don’t have the best one in college basketball anymore.”
There’s no way to replace his heart, or his hustle, but we do have to have somebody to match Nerlens’ production. So how do you replace the SEC Freshman of the Year?