With Noel hurt, Kentucky may have lost more than a game
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kentucky assistant John Robic emerged from the locker room Tuesday night and looked around for someone in charge. Then he made a request that shattered any illusion that forward Nerlens Noel's left knee injury might have been less serious than it looked and sounded. "Can we get a wheelchair?" Robic asked.
Noel, a towel over his face, was wheeled through the bowels of the O'Connell Center and taken to the hospital. Kentucky's season might have gone with him.
This wasn't a great Wildcats team to begin with. Tuesday's 69-52 loss to Florida was no upset. The older, more polished, more skilled team looked like the older, more polished, more skilled team. With Noel, a 6-foot-10 forward who entered the week leading the nation with 4.5 blocks a game, Kentucky would have had a puncher's chance at going deep in the NCAA tournament because of its superior athleticism. If the injury is as serious as it looked and sounded, whether Kentucky will make the tournament at all becomes a legitimate question.
Afterward, Kentucky coach John Calipari declined to discuss how the Wildcats might look without Noel. "I'm not going to think about that," Calipari said as Noel was being transported to Shands Hospital for tests on the knee. "I'm worried about the kid right now."
Last April, the convenient narrative for lazy writers who wanted to file their columns without actually watching the games at the Final Four was that Calipari's national title team of one-and-done wonders had killed amateurism. Cal would reload with another group of baby superstars and steamroll everyone every year. If anything, this year's group of potential one-and-dones has proven why the 2011-12 Wildcats were the first team since the NBA instituted an age limit in prior to the 2006 draft to win the national title with a one-and-done player on the roster. Relying on freshmen -- no matter how talented -- remains a dicey proposition.
One rarely wins a title by collecting highly sought-after recruits, rolling the ball out and watching them dominate. National titles require superior skill, excellent chemistry and at least a little luck. Calipari got lucky last year because he added an athletic, willing-to-learn point guard (Marquis Teague) and two selfless freshmen who happened to be absurdly talented (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) to a rotation that included a seen-it-all senior (Darius Miller) and two sophomores (Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones) who probably could have gone to the NBA after helping Kentucky reach the Final Four as freshmen. That group had instant chemistry, probably because Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were the rare top recruits who arrived on campus caring more about the team than themselves. Coaches always want to recruit such players, but until they get them on the practice court, they don't really know what they have.
Noel is the closest thing this group of Wildcats had to a Davis or a Kidd-Gilchrist. He is a lottery pick who rarely gives up on a possession on either end of the floor. He fights for rebounds. He blocks shots but doesn't do it so wildly that he gets himself in foul trouble every night. With Noel, the Wildcats looked lost against Florida -- which is precisely the type of well-rounded, veteran-heavy team this season's eventual national champ will have to beat two or three times during this year's tournament. Without Noel, Kentucky looked hopeless.
It happened as Noel corrected a mistake with 8:03 remaining and the Wildcats trailing by 12. Florida guard Mike Rosario had just picked off a pass intended for Noel near midcourt. As Rosario closed in for a layup, Noel sprinted behind him. Before Rosario could release the ball, Noel unfurled and swatted the ball with his left hand. He landed awkwardly. Then he grabbed his left knee. Video shot by Julie Quittner of the Gainesville Television Network from the baseline appeared to show Noel attempting to pop his kneecap back into place. Then he crumpled. As Noel screamed, Calipari hovered over his fallen star. Trainers examined the knee and got Noel upright, but he could put no weight on it. The five Kentucky players who were checked into the game ran to Noel and carried him off the court. Guards Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin did the heaviest lifting. "We're all brothers," Mays said. "Win, lose or draw. We've always got each other's backs."
Afterward, Florida coach Billy Donovan pointed out the sad irony of the injury. "The injury came from a hustle play," Donovan said. "It kind of embodies who he is as a player. He's a hustle-play guy."
Donovan knows exactly how it feels to lose a team-first, hustle-play guy. Last week, Florida lost forward Will Yeguete to a knee injury at Arkansas. Without their glue guy, the Gators looked aimless in a blowout loss. (Yeguete is likely out for the remainder of the regular season but should return for the postseason following arthroscopic surgery.) But Florida is a deep, veteran team. After a few practices and a game against Mississippi State to regroup, the Gators adjusted their roles. Tuesday, junior Casey Prather provided a different -- think Gorilla instead of Krazy -- but still effective brand of glue. In 23 minutes, Prather scored 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting, blocked two shots, dished out two assists and played smothering defense. He didn't provide the post muscle Yeguete would have, but Prather gave the Wildcats another X-factor with which to contend.
They were not ready for Prather, nor were they ready for the other four Gators who finished with double-figure points. Calipari said as much in the post-mortem.
On his team's maturity: "Our young guys looked like deer in headlights."
On his team's physicality (or lack thereof): "This was almost a game that exposed us a little bit physically."
On his team's preparedness: "It's probably the coaching. It's probably on me more than anyone else."
In the aftermath of Noel's injury, Calipari will have to set aside the self-flagellation and earn his paycheck. Without Noel, he'll need the coaching job of his life to make this group competitive against elite teams. Even when he had Noel, Calipari tried every combination he could. His roster is his roster. It's up to him to maximize what he has left.
Otherwise, Kentucky's hopes might have buckled with Noel's knee.