KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee's game plan would have been similar: Draw Nerlens Noel away from the basket, then attack inside.
But with Noel out of the picture, Tennessee skipped straight to that last step in routing Kentucky 88-58 Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Best player's not on the floor? Different team," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of how Noel's absence impacted UK. "He's one of the better defenders in the country. Not just at shot-blocking. He knows how to defend."
The Wildcats saw how vital Noel has been to holding together their defense.
They were attacked relentlessly inside. A team that had held opponents to 41 percent shooting on two-pointers this year (sixth-best in the country) allowed the Volunteers to make 53.3 percent of its shots inside and 58 percent overall, the worst mark in coach John Calipari's four years.
"I think it made a difference since they didn't have their big man down there blocking shots," Tennessee guard Trae Golden said. "Willie Cauley-Stein can still block shots but maybe not at the same rate that Nerlens Noel could."
UK was outscored 40-22 in the paint and sent the Vols to the free throw line 31 times, a season-worst mark for the Cats.
"Willie Cauley-Stein, he's not a shot blocker like Noel was, and doesn't have the timing that he has," Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. "It was easier to go to the basket without having him there.""
Tennessee's 1.38 points-per-possession mark was it's highest of the season (1.31, Oakland) and was UK's season-worst mark (1.34, Texas A&M). The Volunteers grabbed 62.5 percent of all available offensive rebounds, another season high for them (50 percent, Alabama) and a season low for UK (52.8 percent, Maryland).
"I mean, we gave up four offensive rebounds in the first two minutes," Calipari said. "You're not going to win (that way)."
Calipari tried to adjust. He urged his players to take more charges in the first half. When they didn't, he demanded it in the second half, threatening them with sprints if they didn't comply.
"We don't have a shot-blocker," Calipari said. "You must take charges."
He also mixed in a 2-3 zone for a few minutes in the first half that didn't have any more success than UK's man-to-man defense did.
"We're still trying to learn what we're doing defensively," Calipari said.
Noel's absence from the lineup wasn't the only change to the starting five.
Guard Ryan Harrow was benched for the first time since Dec. 8 and Alex Poythress was benched for just the second time this season (Louisville).
In their place were Jarrod Polson, making his first career start, and Kyle Wiltjer, starting for the first time in 15 games.
"The other guys didn't deserve to start," Calipari said. "You didn't bring it."
The new starters responded to their opportunity. Wiltjer led the team with 18 points and six rebounds, and Polson scored a career-high 11 points with four rebounds in 22 minutes.
"He fought," Calipari said of Polson. "He and Julius (Mays) fought. Two guys. … Jarrod has played against all the guys we've had the last few years, and Julius is a veteran. They understand you can't put your head down. You gotta compete."
The benched players didn't respond so well. Harrow scored zero points with zero assists in 18 minutes (which followed a zero-point, one-assist game against Florida). Poythress scored four points with two rebounds in 20 minutes. Both fouled out.
Kentucky was assessed three technical fouls during the loss.
The first was on assistant coach John Robic, who was arguing a call early in the first half and was ejected. He challenged a call in which the ball got stuck on the rim, and the possession was awarded to Tennessee rather than Kentucky, which had the alternating arrow in its favor.
"They got the call wrong," Calipari said. "He was disappointed about it. Said something. I don't think he said enough to get tossed, but he did."
The other two were on Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin, both of who responded to chippy fouls with post-play pushes.
Calipari would rather their energy be channeled toward their play.
"My thing was, why would you do that? Why wouldn't you fight for balls?" Calipari said. "The guy pushed him [Goodwin] in the back with two hands. But my point is, don't do that now, you're down 30. Why wouldn't you fight as the game was in the balance?"
UK was assessed 25 fouls total, with three players fouling out and another reaching four fouls.
But players dismissed the notion that the officiating played a part in the loss.
"Never blame it on the refs," Wiltjer said. "It's on us."
No letting up
Up as much as 39, Tennessee wasn't letting up.
The Volunteers didn't take their foot off UK's throats as the blowout wound down.
And Calipari was OK with that.
"This team hadn't beaten us in a while," Calipari said. "This was their chance to get that wounded animal. They rolled the car over us a couple times. Over, back. Over, back. Make sure we're done."
Calipari said he had "no problem" with Martin leaving in most of his starters until the end.
"He's trying to get his team right," Calipari said. "He's not worried about my team. And you know what, if he does, that's one of the best teams in our league."