Kentucky Basketball: Players Who Must Step Up in Nerlens Noel's Absence

Brian MaziqueCorrespondent IIIFebruary 13, 2013

February 12, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel (3) reacts on the ground after hurting his knee against the Florida Gators during the second half at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Florida won 69-52. Mandatory USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

My stomach turned on Tuesday night when Nerlens Noel went down with a knee injury, and not just because the injury looked a bit gruesome. It is hurtful to see a young prospect have his future altered by an injury.

We can only hope that the injury is less serious than some fear. 

Kentucky was beaten handily by Florida 69-52 in the game, and the margin of victory had nothing to do with Noel's injury. The team has struggled to make shots on the perimeter all season, and Tuesday night was no exception.

They shot just 42 percent from the field overall. Before the loss, they had won five in a row to break into the Top 25 again, but this wasn't a championship-caliber club even with Noel.

Still, the team had hoped to build upon recent success. At worst, they could try to finish the year on a positive note. That becomes more challenging with Noel possibly on the shelf for the remainder of the season.

In his absence, the Wildcats have to have their bigs step up. Noel had really turned the corner as a defender and a rebounder, and that is where he will be missed primarily.

The freshman was averaging 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocked shots per game.

Willie Cauley-Stein Thrust into the Spotlight

The first and most obvious player who will be called upon to step up is seven-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein. He would likely start for most teams in the country, but he has been a reserve for most of the season behind Noel.

He is a very talented big man with solid upside. Enough is thought of his future that has him listed as No. 10 in their latest mock draft. 

Cauley-Stein offers a little more in the way of post moves, but he isn't quite the force defensively or on the boards. He's averaged 7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots per game.

His size and athleticism should be an asset to the Wildcats moving forward.

Kyle Wiltjer Must Play Big

The backup big man for the Wildcats will now be sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. The 6'10" forward is more of a spot-up shooter, but his presence will be needed in the post to provide depth.

He has started nine games this season, and he's shooting a paltry 40 percent from three-point range. He definitely gives the Wildcats a different look offensively. 

Wiltjer's rebounding needs to improve, though. He's pulled down 4.5 boards per game thus far, and the team will need him to be more aggressive in that area—especially on the defensive glass.

As hard as Noel's injury is to take, the Wildcats aren't completely strapped when it comes to replacements. Individually, Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer can't match Noel's presence, but collectively they could still be effective.

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