World of hurt for Noel, Cats



By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3

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As Nerlens Noel’s screams of agony echoed throughout the O’Connell Center and into the living rooms of those watching on national television, the basketball world feared the worst.

Big Blue Nation held its collective breath. Other teams’ fans and players tweeted out prayers and well wishes for the star center. NBA general managers began to rethink their draft plans.

Wednesday morning, when UK announced Noel suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and would miss the rest of his freshman season, the fears were confirmed.

Noel’s injury leaves his future and UK’s season in flux.

Noel’s future

Projected as the No. 1 overall draft pick before going down in Gainesville, Fla., Noel will likely slip down the board.

Aran Smith of said he thinks Noel will drop a couple of spots but won’t fall too far.

“We’ve had him No. 2 before the injury,” Smith said. “We’re going to update soon and probably have him in the four to six range. I don’t see him falling too far.

“He is really skinny so the fact that he injured his knee may be cause for some concern for the future.”

Jonathan Givony of tweeted that he still expected Noel to go between the first and third picks.

“At the end of the day, he’s still the best big guy on the board,” Givony told The Courier-Journal’s Kyle Tucker. “If you need a center … Noel brings dramatically different things (than any other center). GMs are going to want a thorough examination, but I have to imagine he’s going to recover and be just fine from this. Maybe he slips one or two spots.”

Chad Ford of ESPN moved Noel from No. 1 to No. 3 on his mock draft board. In an interview on SportsCenter, Ford said Noel would still be a top-5 pick in the draft.

“I talked to a number of NBA GMs and a number of NBA scouts, and I think it’s safe to say that if he were to declare for the NBA draft this year, teams might shy away from taking him with the No. 1 pick because there’s a lot of pressure on them to get a franchise player.”

Basically, Noel’s draft projection depends on who’s picking and how he recovers. Timelines for recovering from ACL injuries can vary from six months to more than a year.

Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, a former player for UK head coach John Calipari at Memphis, is nearing 10 months since tearing his ACL in the first round of last year’s NBA playoffs. Rose recently said his return is still a ways off.

The NFL’s Adrian Peterson, on the other hand, tore his ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve 2011. He returned to the field for the Minnesota Vikings’ home opener on Sept. 9, 2012, roughly nine months after his injury. Peterson led the NFL in rushing last season, nearly breaking the all-time rushing record, and was named league MVP.

Calipari said in a statement that Noel is insured against injury, and Noel’s ailment is “one that athletes bounce back from all the time.” Depending on how quickly Noel can rehab and get back on the court will directly affect GMs’ interest in him.

But could Noel stay at UK? Scholarships are renewable year-by-year under NCAA rules, so Calipari would undoubtedly make room for him on next year’s roster, even with the marquee class coming in. Noel might want to return to the safe haven of UK, to come back from injury in an environment where millions of dollars aren’t on the line as soon as he steps back onto a basketball court.

But don’t count on that. Noel is still a lottery pick, no matter if it takes him a full year to recover. He is too good a player with too much potential for too many teams to pass on him. Calipari has a history of pushing his players to the NBA when the money is guaranteed, so he would likely do the same with Noel.

“Coach Cal will weigh in on the pros and cons of possibly returning,” Smith said. “Some people are concerned about the idea of him coming back and playing an 82-game season, which would be tougher on his body than another college season. He’s still not a complete player; he would benefit from another year, but everything I hear indicates he’ll end up going (to the draft).

“Cal isn’t going to change his stance. Cal has always been of the opinion you don’t give up guaranteed money and when you’re that high, you should go.”

And imagine if Noel were to return to college only to re-injure his knee. Next year’s draft class is considerably stronger than this year’s, so the 6-foot-10 center wouldn’t have the same stronghold on the lottery. The safe bet is Noel enters the draft and makes his NBA debut in December or January.

UK’s season

The Cats are likely wishing their NCAA Tournament hopes were as assured as Noel’s spot in the draft.

Already struggling to solidify a bid, losing its best player won’t help UK pass the selection committee’s eye test. Noel had become one of the more recognizable players in the college game this year, his 12-block performance at Ole Miss attracting a bright spotlight. UK is nowhere near as marketable now as it was with a healthy Noel.

Noel’s absence will surely change the way the team is viewed by the pundits and most definitely change the way the game is played by the team. UK’s defense becomes considerably weaker without the nation’s blocks leader, the team’s steals and rebounds leader, and the one player who consistently gave all-out hustle.

Calipari’s defensive approach must change. The Cats can no longer funnel opponents into the lane now that there’s a flat-top sized hole in the middle. The perimeter defense must stiffen, limiting drives to the basket.

Noel’s fellow freshman Willie Cauley-Stein will see an increased role. Cauley-Stein is a more polished offensive player but lacks Noel’s defensive instincts and quick hands. More importantly, he will have to stay on the floor more than he ever has. Cauley-Stein has shown the tendency to get gassed after stretches of play. He’ll also need to stay out of foul trouble or Kyle Wiltjer will be forced to shift to center.

But much of the impact of Noel’s loss won’t be measurable in statistics or drawn up on a dry-erase board. Noel was the competitive soul of the team — its attitiude, its swagger.

On a team that’s been known to lollygag through games, Noel has been the one to keep focus and will his team to victory as he did in Oxford. So far this season, none of his teammates have shown the urgency and intensity present in Noel’s game. Someone will have to step up and fill this role, or UK will fade in the SEC rankings and be relegated to the NIT.

Smith said seeing how Noel’s teammates perform in his absence is a storyline to watch.

“What’s interesting to me is how this affects (UK’s) other prospects,” he said. “Will they be exposed? Will we see more from (Alex) Poythress, (Archie) Goodwin and Cauley-Stein? How will they be perceived?”

Entering the season, Nerlens Noel was hyped as the next great UK basketball player, and throughout this season he was proving to be just that. On track to make a run at the single-season steals record and rivaling Anthony Davis’ unheard of single-season blocks record, Noel was destined for the record books.

Now sidelined, his UK career likely over and his team’s future uncertain, Noel will always be remembered with a twinge of sadness by the big blue faithful.