ORLANDO, Fla. (WDRB) -- With the season-ending injury to freshman center Nerlens Noel, both the University of Kentucky basketball team and the player face some big questions moving forward.
UK coach John Calipari talked about Noel's torn anterior cruciate ligament tear today. He said Noel will have surgery in 2 or 3 weeks. Typical recovery time is 6-8 months.
"I've been coaching for 22 years and this is the first injury we've had of this kind during the season, which makes it even more devastating," Calipari said. "I met with Nerlens earlier today. The meeting was really positive, and I loved his attitude. The way he is already dealing with this injury lets me know that he is going to come back stronger than ever. The good news is he is insured, so he would have been fine even if the injury would have been worse. Obviously this is not a career-ending injury and it's one that athletes bounce back from all the time."
So what's ahead for the player and program?
First for Noel. One thing working in his favor is his build. Unlike Greg Oden or even Jared Sullinger, he doesn't carry a lot of bulk. Instead of 270, he's listed at 215. You have to figure that would create less strain on a knee in rehab.
Still, he'll face major health questions entering the NBA Draft -- and there's no question he'll enter the NBA Draft. Even if he'd somehow avoided a major injury in Tuesday night's fall at Florida, it was hard to see how he and those around him could do anything but shut him down and prepare for the draft.
Now, Noel still projects as a lottery pick, but the question is how high, and what the particulars of his ACL surgery are. They're not all identical, and Noel's injury history will come into play.
Earlier this season, he told reporters (after a victory over Portland) that he was playing with tendinitis in his knees, and that it caused him pain from time to time, especially when he increased his workload.
Three years ago, Noel cracked a growth plate in his left knee during pregame warmups for a game at Everett High School.
That twice seriously injured knee will now be subject to a level of scrutiny he has not experienced before. It certainly has cost him money. It shouldn't cost him his career, and with successful surgery and rehab, shouldn't hinder him from his NBA opportunity.
Finally, as Calipari said, Noel's outlook, work ethic and positive approach should help him. He took to Twitter on what was an incredibly disappointing day personally to say this to fans: "Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback! I love you all and can't thank y'all enough for the prayers."
As for UK, the chances for an immediate bounce-back are less optimistic, but are not without hope.
Willie Cauley-Stein has been a hard-working player with an outstanding attitude who would start for most college basketball teams in America. He'll take sole possession of the center spot at UK, and should be effective on the offensive end.
He's not quite the defender that Noel is, but he does work hard on defense and is a shot-blocking threat in his own right.
The problem for UK is not in the post. The problem is on the perimeter.
UK's guards were exposed against Florida, and its perimeter defense has struggled for most of the season. No longer can UK funnel opposing ball handlers in the lane with the knowledge that Noel is there waiting for them.
UK's guards will need to become better perimeter defenders, and may well have to hug up closer to ballhandlers, apply more ball pressure and look to create more steals and turnovers, two things UK hasn't worried much about with its tremendous shot-blocking ability the past two seasons.
Noel's role in the UK offense was limited. In that sense, UK can make up for his absence. But it was his overwhelming presence on the defense end that it will struggle to account for. Noel changed the way opposing offenses play. And when he left the game against Florida, the Gators guards and post players both began to go to the rim at will against the Wildcats.
As Florida showed even in the three-quarters of the game when Noel played, this UK team had made less progress toward climbing toward Top 25 status than was originally assumed. It didn't threaten Florida, even a Florida team with its No. 2 post player missing.
The outlook for UK as a team now becomes one of survival mode, but players like Kyle Wiltjer and Cauley-Stein have steadily improved, and the challenge to freshman Alex Poythress may finally yet bring out of him the kind of play Calipari and his staff have been waiting to see consistently.
The loss of Noel makes a surprise postseason run by UK less likely, and turns attention to just making the tournament itself. It should be remembered, UK's tournament resume will be judged largely now on what it does from here on out without Noel, not what it did early in the season. That makes it tough, but also gives the remaining UK players a goal to shoot for. It also issues the kind of individual challenge to some talented young players that might yet motivate them down the stretch of this season to play together in a way they haven't done consistently.
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