Kentucky's fears were confirmed on Wednesday when freshman big man Nerlens Noel was diagnosed with a torn ACL, effectively shutting him down for the season, according to the Associated Press, via ESPN.com.
Noel, who suffered the injury in Tuesday's 69-52 loss to Florida, has been a key player for the 17-7 Wildcats this season, averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.4 blocks (tops in the nation) and 2.1 steals.
Now the young Wildcats must trudge on for the remaining seven games of the regular season with their postseason chances in doubt. The final game of their regular-season slate just so happens to be a rematch against the No. 7 Gators, who were clearly the better team even with Noel on the floor on Tuesday.
Kentucky had won five straight games before Tuesday's loss to Florida, including an 87-74 victory over then-No. 16 Ole Miss on Jan. 29. In the upset over the Rebels, Noel posted a Kentucky-record 12 blocks in his pursuit of Anthony Davis' single-season record.
But the thrashing at the hands of the Gators on Tuesday was a reminder of the Wildcats' inexperience and inconsistency. Freshmen standouts Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin both struggled. Poythress finished with five points on 1-of-9 shooting. Poythress and Goodwin combined for seven turnovers.
Former Kentucky center Sam Bowie made a valid point about the young squad, via the Associated Press report:
"His teammates will start to second-guess themselves, and that's just human nature. You always say, 'We'll regroup; people have to step up and take their games to another level,' and that's been the politically correct thing to say, but realistically speaking it will affect the team mentally."
Despite fielding a young team this season, there were high expectations of the Wildcats, especially given they won the national championship with a young roster last season.
But while Noel is no Anthony Davis, his loss leaves a giant void in the middle. Seven-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein will have to step up, as well as 6'10" sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer. Cauley-Stein, the No. 47 overall recruit in the 2012 class according to 247Sports.com, has certainly shown promise this season, but he can't make the same impact as Noel, and a combination of him and Wiltjer probably won't, either.
If the Wildcats expect to make the postseason this season, they are going to have to grow up very fast.
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