The question is if Kentucky (17-7, 8-3 Southeastern Conference) can bounce back from the devastating loss.
With Noel out, 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein now must man the post for Kentucky after spending most of the season as Noel’s backup. Cauley-Stein missed four games last month after having a procedure on his left knee, an absence that meant even more minutes for Noel.
Noel clearly relished the extra work, which gave him a chance to display an array of skills. Besides his shot-blocking prowess, Noel was averaging 10.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, with the latter two statistics both ranking 26th nationally.
He entered the game with three consecutive double-doubles and on a four-week run as the conference’s top freshman. In his previous five games, Noel had blocked 26 shots.
Projected as an NBA lottery pick by some scouting services if he were to leave after the season, Noel’s draft stock seemed unaffected by his injury. Several blogs still consider him a top-five selection, with others projecting him as a first-rounder.
While Kentucky has lacked a bona fide team leader, there was no doubt that the Wildcats seemed to feed off of Noel’s intensity and athleticism. Calipari’s wish has been for other players to display those some traits.
Now, the Wildcats have to rework the rotation without their biggest star. Kentucky’s tallest player besides Cauley-Stein is 6-10 sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, whose game had recently blossomed along with Noel’s.
Former Wildcats center Sam Bowie believes the injury might initially affect the team’s psyche, especially with so many young players.
“His teammates will start to second-guess themselves, and that’s just human nature,” Bowie said. “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.”