By LARRY VAUGHT
7:59 AM PST, February 13, 2013
Losing to Florida was not that unexpected for Kentucky, but the way the Wildcats were physically dominated most of the game was a bit of a surprise as the Gators were the dominant team for the final 35 minutes.
But Tuesday’s game is going to be memorable for another reason — the knee injury to potential No. 1 NBA draft pick Nerlens Noel.¿He’s the heart and soul of this team, the one player who always seems to play hard no matter what happens.
His injury even came on a hustle play not every teammate would have made. A Julius Mays turnover led to a Florida runout but Noel hustled down the court to block Mike Rosario’s shot. However, he hit his knee on the basket support when he came down and immediately crumpled to the floor. He was motionless on the court — and moaning so loud it could clearly be heard on TV. Once he did get up, he had to be carried off the floor by a bevvy of teammates.
Later he was taken out of the arena in a wheelchair and coach John Calipari said “we don’t know yet” on his postgame radio show about the extent of Noel’s injury.
“But it didn’t look real good,” Calipari said.
No, it didn’t and that is scary both for Noel’s future and UK’s season.
Kentucky had threatened to get back into the game before Noel’s injury with 8:03 left in the game. After that, UK’s energy was gone — and maybe its season as well. The Cats still have road games at Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee as well as home games with Florida and Missouri. Without Noel — the nation’s top blocker and UK’s leading rebounder as well — the Cats could be in trouble in all of those games and in danger of dropping out of NCAA Tournament contention.
“I think we didn’t give enough effort as we should have,” Kentucky guard Jarrod Polson said on the UK Radio Network after the game. “Any time you see a teammate go down, it is kind of sad. We had a little run going, but we just couldn’t hit enough shots. We usually hit them, but we didn’t make them tonight.
“That was probably the best defensive team we have played all year. You have to give it to Florida. But one game can’t ruin the season for us.”
One game shouldn’t ruin a season and ordinarily wouldn’t. But Noel’s injury changes that.
Kentucky went from being in position to survive the Florida loss and put together another win streak to move into a No. 7 seed possibly in the NCAA. Now UK¿will be lucky to make the tournament.
This team struggles enough with Noel on the court. Take out his rim-protecting skills and UK¿could be abused by good offensive teams — or even ordinary teams. Florida’s older, experienced players were way too physical on both ends of the court for Kentucky. UK¿struggled to get off shots and then struggled just as much to keep Florida from scoring.
Great teams can sustain losing a top player. But Kentucky is not a great team. As ESPN analyst Dick Vitale noted during the game, UK¿fans have to face “reality” about this team — and that was before Noel went down.
“This is just a good basketball team literally in many areas. Last year was a great team,” Vitale said while admitting he was one of many who didn’t factor in how much the lack of experience would hurt Calipari’s team.
No one could have known that this team wouldn’t have that competitive fire that Calipari’s first three teams had. There’s no Patrick Patterson, DeAndre Liggins or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on this team.
“We didn’t battle. We had too many guys who were tentative and didn’t want to battle. Probably have to make our practices rougher. They were so physical on us in the post we couldn’t get a ball to the basket. The game got physical and it’s obvious how people are going to play us and we have to make our practices more physical,” Calipari said.
But no matter what Kentucky does, if Noel’s injury is as bad as it looked or Calipari seemed to think it might be, it’s hard to find a scenario where this team can find enough punch to win consistently and stay in NCAA contention.