While we’re all still dealing with how to handle the loss of Nerlens Noel, the Cats have a very practical, and fast-approaching problem: we go to Tennessee on Saturday. While it can be hard to say goodbye to what we had, I’m sure there are only a few things, if any, that Noel would want more than his teammates to go out and play ball. In fact, he seems to be handling this whole thing better than literally everyone else.
But as Wylie Burp famously said, “One man’s sunset is another man’s dawn.” And while Nerlens’ basketball career is far from over, his season at UK is just that. So what does that mean for the team? It’s going to take a village to replace the defensive impact that Nerlens brought to the court (possibly the best in Kentucky history), but the lion’s share is going to fall on the other half of the Twin Towers, Willie Cauley-Stein.
Because whether you wanted them or not, Willie, here’s thirty-plus minutes a game. The question now is, what are you going to do with them? He hasn’t played more than thirty minutes in a single game so far this season, but you can expect that to change almost immediately. So even though he certainly didn’t ask for it, and I’m sure isn’t happy about the circumstances surrounding it, he’s got a golden opportunity to really play himself into the NBA lottery with solid performances down the stretch. It’s almost exactly the plot of 8 Mile, except it’s not about rap and he has Julius Mays instead of Mekhi Phifer. Other than that, it’s spot-on.
So what does Willie have to do to earn himself a top-14 draft spot? Well for starters, his free-throw percentage is going to have to improve. 37.5% from charity just isn’t going to help him make a good impression, nor the team win games. Compare that to his team-best 64% FG shooting, and you have a guy that you know can make those shots, but is blanking for whatever reason.
And speaking of 64% FG shooting, that’s going to have to maintain, but at a much higher volume, if Kentucky’s got any chance of keeping defenders from swarming our perimeter players. The rebounding, too, will have to stay good, or even get better. WCS averages 5.5 in 20 minutes, while Nerlens was picking up 9.5 in 32 minutes. We can’t expect Willie to automatically fill that void, but he will have to step it up if we want to keep improving on the glass (which the team has done drastically since early-season matchups with Maryland and Duke). Can he do all this? Sure. Will he? (See what I did there? “Will he”/”Willie”? … It’s stupid, nevermind.) We’ll have to watch and see.
Ultimately, we’re still feeling a loss that stings. For a team already on the bubble, this was the worst thing that could have happened to our tourney chances. But, the season isn’t over, and the bulk of the responsibility for how it ends falls to Willie Cauley-Stein. He doesn’t have to be the next Nerlens to help the team on Selection Sunday, but even playing solid ball, while showing steady signs of improvement, could be enough to push us over the edge. And, added bonus, if he does that, he’ll be helping not only his team, but his draftability.
Your move, Willie. What do you got?