Nerlens Noel, Kentucky's star center and the nation's leading shot-blocker, had to be helped off the floor during the middle of the second half in the Wildcats' game Tuesday night against Florida.
At this point, we do not know the seriousness or extent of Noel's injury.
Obviously, if he just came down on his knee awkwardly, and just tweaked it, that is one thing.
But if Noel's injury sidelines him for part of or the remainder of the season, the Wildcats will be forced to make major adjustments in their overall approach to their seven regular-season games and their attempt at making it to this year’s NCAA tournament.
It is no surprise to anyone that Nerlens Noel has started all 24 games this year for the Kentucky Wildcats. He is the team’s playing time leader, averaging 32.3 minutes per game. In seven games, Noel had played at least 35 of the 40 minutes. In fact, in an overtime game with Texas A&M on February 2, Noel played 41 minutes.
If Noel’s injury is serious, Cats coach John Calipari will have to figure out what the best plan for filling those crucial minutes. Willie Cauley-Stein is the most likely candidate to move into the starting center role. He has averaged 20 minutes per game so far.
But Calipari may be hesitant to push Cauley-Stein’s minutes too far. The 7'0" freshman from Olathe, Kan., had a mid-January minor procedure on his left knee. WC-S has looked good after the procedure, averaging nearly 12 points and six rebounds over the last three games.
If Cauley-Stein picks up some of the minutes, Calipari may still elect to occasionally go with a smaller squad that might look like this:
This is not a likely lineup for any length of time. The only way that Calipari might choose to go with this combination is if he wanted to go with a “five-out” offense that would go without any post player to open up dribble penetration lanes.
Noel is the without a doubt the anchor to the UK defense. His shot-blocking presence creates unrest among the Wildcats’ opponents. While he blocks 4.5 shots per game, he probably alters twice that many.
With Noel in the middle, Kentucky’s other four defenders can either (1) apply greater pressure on their assignments or (2) take more chances at steals. By having Noel patrolling the lane, John Calipari can draw up more aggressive defensive schemes to torment the Cats’ opponents.
Because of Kentucky’s menacing pressure, it is one of the best defensive teams in the country. Going into tonight’s game against Florida, the Cats were the No. 1 shot-blocking team in the nation (7.7 BPG). While that is slightly behind the 2011-12 Cats record-breaking season (9 blocks per game), this is still a major strength for this young team.
Also, over UK’s first 23 games of this season, it was holding its challengers to 37.8 percent shooting from the floor (No. 14 in the country). Usually, a team is considered nasty on the defensive end if it prevents the other team from hitting 40 percent of its shots from the field.
These two strong points would be in serious jeopardy if Noel’s injury is serious and keeps him on the sideline for an extended amount of time.
If Noel’s injury is significant, the impact on the Wildcats’ mental and emotional perspective could go well beyond any functional change or physical deficiency.
Not suggesting that the Kentucky basketball team is a fragile or delicate group, but the weight of something like this could lead a young team to revert back to how it was playing in December when it went 4-3.
Before losing to Florida, the Kentucky Wildcats were starting to put things together. They had won five straight, and had worked themselves into second place in the SEC. Now, with Nerlens Noel’s availability in question, the Cats have a daunting task ahead of them.
Regardless of the immediate basketball implications, we hope that Nerlens Noel will recover fully and quickly.
Even if Noel returns this season, the final seven regular-season games will present the defending national champs with a huge challenge.