Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Just before sustaining his season-ending
injury, Nerlens Noel displayed tremendous athletic ability by chasing down
Scottie Wilbekin on a fast break to block the Gators' point guard's layup.
There may not be another center in the NCAA capable of pulling off such a
play, and Noel may not be able to repeat such a play ever again either after
tearing the ACL in his left knee on his landing. The Wildcats' athletic rookie
has since expressed his optimism via twitter.
"Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback! I love you all and can't thank y'all
enough for the prayers."
Although Noel is staying positive and a return to the hardwood for the shot
blocking phenomenon at some point is almost a certainty, a few major questions
regarding both his and his team's future have surfaced over the past days.
Kentucky's John Calipari's recruiting skills are second to none. The Wildcats'
coach has sent off quite a few of his former players to the NBA, the most
notable three being Marcus Camby, Derrick Rose, and Anthony Davis. Since the
day Noel committed to UK by revealing the school's logo shaved into the back
of signature hi-top fade hairstyle on national television, he was expected to
be the immediate replacement for Davis, who was the top pick in the 2012 NBA
Draft after leading the Wildcats to the NCAA Championship last season.
Although UK was not quite as dominant this season after losing the majority of
its key players to the professional ranks after cutting down the nets,
Calipari managed to rope in another top tier recruiting class with Noel at
Noel was projected by most experts to be the top pick in next season's NBA
Draft prior to arriving in Lexington. Although he was only the fourth-leading
scorer on UK with 10.5 ppg, his unique style of play only made professional
scouts more intrigued as he also yielded a team-best 9.5 rebounds per game and
Division I leading 4.4 blocks per tilt.
The injury coincidentally occurred the same week that Calipari's former
superstar Memphis guard Derrick Rose announced his recovery, from the same
exact injury, is going slower than expected. There are a handful of players
who have recovered from the same surgery such as Baron Davis, Jamal Crawford
and Kyle Lowry. However, it is hard to predict how both Rose and Noel will
return to action as they both relied on their premier athleticism more than
Noel was one of the qualifying athletes for the NCAA's disability insurance
policy prior to the season. The policy only offers protection for career
ending injuries though. Noel did enough to secure a position in the first
round of the NBA Draft even with his injury, but his rookie salary will be
decreased the further he slides on draft day.
Noel would have been one of the top picks in the draft last season, but the
NBA's one-and-done rule sent him to Lexington. Instead of entering the most
competitive basketball league in the world in good health, Noel will be
digging himself out of a hole to start his professional career. Although he
has the option to return to UK for a second season, there is a very slim
possibility that occurs as it would put his future at risk even further.
While Noel begins to battle back to full strength, Calipari and his Wildcats
will still be looking to return to the Final Four. This season has a
completely different complexion for the SEC power.
The Wildcats were in the driver's seat in 2011-12 as they made up for their
youth and inexperience with pure talent, athleticism and overbearing
confidence. At this current juncture, UK is 17-7 and in second place in the
conference standings entering its Saturday bout with the Tennessee Volunteers,
who it defeated by 10 points on Jan. 15. The Wildcats can use their upcoming
trip to Rocky Top to immediately display their resilience and ability to
With Noel out, Calipari's already thin front line is going to be attacked by
foes that were once settling for jumpers to avoid Noel. Sophomore forward Kyle
Wiltjer began to show improvement while playing alongside Noel, but the 6-
foot-10 Canadian-American is not by any means a defensive anchor or dominant
rebounder. Wiltjer's rare combination of height and shooting ability resembles
former Marquette and current New York Knick forward Steve Novak's style of
play, which makes him a great asset, but not an ideal replacement for Noel.
The vacancy in the middle will shine the spotlight very brightly on Willie
Cauley-Stein, who may have had a golden opportunity fall into his lap amid the
crisis. The seven-foot, 244-pound freshman certainly has enough size, length,
and athleticism to make an impact. The timing couldn't have worked out better
for Cauley-Stein, who has been on fire as of late, going 15-of-21 from the
field over his last three games.
Cauley-Stein would have been the most celebrated recruit at most schools
across the country. He has great size, upside and he even comes from a great
basketball pedigree as his father, Willie Cauley, played for Paul Evans's
Pittsburgh Panthers in the early 1990's. While many think a lot of the burden
of replacing what was lost with Noel will fall on Cauley-Stein, it will
actually take a collective effort.
There is not much depth left on the team behind Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer on
the interior. To keep its hopes of repeating as champion alive, UK will have
to defer to its perimeter players for production the same way Villanova did
when it harbored Lowry, Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi, Allan Ray and Randy Foye
during its 2005 run to the Sweet 16.
The freshmen tandem of Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress have shown promise
already, but they will really be tested on both ends from here on out. Goodwin
has shown steady improvement while starting at two guard and pacing the team
with 13.9 ppg. His decision making and outside shooting both need to improve
rapidly to round out his game, but both are fixable problems.
If Noel was expected to fill in for Davis, Poythress, a 6-foot-8 combo
forward, was the logical replacement for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Wildcats'
rookie forward does not tower over his opposition in the paint, but he rarely
has an athletic disadvantage as he has Hakim Warrick like leaping ability and
Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays, who transferred to UK from NC State and Wright
State, respectively, will both play vital roles in any postseason effort the
The Wildcats will need to play much smarter defensively without Noel. The
perimeter defenders can no longer pressure their competition and invite them
to drive to the rim. Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer will really need to focus on
limiting their fouling as well.
While the NCAA Tournament selection committee will take Noel's injury into
account, it will not write off UK because of it. Just prior to the 2010 NCAA
Tournament, the nationally-ranked Purdue Boilermakers lost their star forward
Robbie Hummel prior to Selection Sunday. Although perhaps it may have been
seeded higher with Hummel, Purdue was admitted into the tourney as a No. 4
Noel was not the first NCAA star to go down with a severe injury this season.
Lehigh's C.J. McCollum has been sidelined since breaking his foot on Jan. 5.
And while the Mountain Hawks were expected to crumble without their star
player, they have only lost one game since and are currently tied (with
possession of the tie-breaker) with Bucknell atop the Patriot League
The chances of UK repeating as NCAA Champion is very remote, but that was
already known coming into the season. It took Calipari over 20 years to win
his first title, winning two in a row is an unreasonable expectation.
However, the NCAA Tournament delivers shocking outcomes and unexpected results
every time it comes around. It is hard to completely rule out a program that
has a coach who has been there, a few players with postseason experience and
an "us against the world" mentality.
The Sports Network