Kentucky was already in the midst of the worst season of the John Calipari era before losing its best player for the year on Tuesday night. Without Nerlens Noel, do the Wildcats have any shot at saving their year?
The news of Kentucky's Nerlens Noel being forced to miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL will undoubtedly give rise to a wave of columns surrounding the former McDonald All-American's future and the controversy surrounding the NBA's eligibility rules. But there's another question floating around that will only grow larger and more debated as the shock surrounding Noel's injury begins to wear off: How good can the Wildcats be without their star?
To be fair, this team never appeared capable of living up to its top five preseason billing. It was a ranking given more for what last year's Kentucky team was able to accomplish and the respect for John Calipari's ability to work with talented freshmen than it was belief in the 2012-13 Wildcats. That said, significant strides had been made in recent weeks, and Noel was at the center of those.
Noel will likely end his college career with 106 blocks in 24 games, a stunning average of 4.41 blocks per game. For comparison's sake, Florida big man Patric Young is in his third season with the Gators and has 103 career blocks. Noel's offensive production had also increased dramatically during UK's recent run of success. He entered Tuesday night's game with a streak of three straight double-doubles, and was averaging 10.5 ppg to go with his team-best 9.5 rpg.
What Kentucky will miss most about Noel, however, is his bourgeoning leadership. It sounds silly to say about a freshman, but the team's best player was also starting to become its unofficial captain. It was a necessary development for a squad so noticeably lacking in the leadership department.
For the first time in the Calipari era, there wasn't the Patrick Patterson or Darius Miller figure who had been around UK for multiple years and could serve as a guiding influence for the talented freshmen. It wasn't an ideal scenario by any stretch of the imagination, but Noel was becoming the best form of that guy he could be.
While reports of him becoming more vocal had been popping up with increased frequency, you didn't need to read them for Noel's leadership qualities to be apparent. No one in the country worked harder on than the guy who might have had the least incentive to do so. He's the type of player who forces everyone on the court wearing the same jersey to either raise their games or have their lack of effort blatantly stick out. His last play as a Wildcat - in which he came from out of the television screen and raced the length of the court to block what would have been an uncontested lay-up - says more about his importance than any sequence of statistics or locker room story could.
The good news for Kentucky is that they'll be able to ease into life without Noel thanks to an extremely down SEC schedule. That's also the bad news for Kentucky. The Wildcats find themselves at 17-7 and with a middling RPI of 49 and strength of schedule of 68. They have just one top 50 RPI win (over reeling Ole Miss), a fact they'll likely only have two shots at changing (vs. Missouri on 2/23 and Florida on 3/9). That type of schedule also leaves UK with little margin for error. Losses to teams with cringe-worthy resumes like Vanderbilt, Mississippi State or Georgia could quickly toss the Cats onto the wrong side of the bubble with little opportunity for reprieve.
The most talked about man in Lexington other than Noel right now is fellow freshman big man Willie Cauley-Stein. The far less heralded recruit doesn't have the athleticism of his predecessor in the starting lineup, but he's shown flashes of the same type of effectiveness on both ends of the court. The biggest question for Cauley-Stein is how he handles the increase in demand. He's appeared in 20 games this season, scored in double figures seven times, but has yet to play more than 30 minutes.
Calipari's also going to need far more consistently from the equally talented and erratic freshmen duo of Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress. Each has the potential to be a lottery pick, but has frustrated Big Blue Nation to no end at points this season with either their questionable decision making (Goodwin) or lack of effort (Poythress).
How this trio of youngsters steps up and handles their newfound responsibility will determine whether Kentucky turns into the dangerous low seed that no one wants to play in March, or a statistic about teams that failed the year after winning a national championship.