|Nerlens Noel's torn ACL is a painful exclamation point on an already rough season. (espn.com)|
Kentucky fans thought this season had been rough after winning a national championship last year. They didn't quite know what rough was until Tuesday when freshman Nerlens Noel tore the ACL in his left knee.
For the rest of the country, the biggest concern with Noel's injury is how this will affect his NBA draft stock and the future of the one-and-done rule. But Kentcky has bigger concerns than if Noel will head to the NBA in June (in case you're curious, ESPN's Chad Ford still has Noel as the No. 3 prospect even after the injury).
The Wildcats are fighting just to get into the NCAA Tournament and now will do so without the most consistent all-around force they have. The schedule isn't a cakewalk for a team in Kentucky's position, as they still have to go on the road to Tennessee and Arkansas and face Missouri and Florida in Rupp Arena. If the Wildcats come out of those four games at or below .500, they may be on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday, barring a run in the SEC Tournament.
The loss of Noel form a statistical standpoint is painful, but the biggest loss for UK is the now empty defensive presence around the basket.
Kentucky still has offensive weapons. Noel was the fourth leading scorer on the team, so it just means that Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer can still carry the load by stepping up a bit more. The real concern is on the defensive end and having a shot blocker roaming the paint and terrifying opponents into resorting to jump shots. Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein will take Noel's place in the lineup (he has averaged 7.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg) and while he has great potential, it's impossible to replace a player who is one of the best shot blockers in the game and deflects more than four per contest.
Imagine if Jeff Withey would go down for Kansas. That defense is completely altered because the player who made it impossible for the other team to get easy shots inside is not longer a threat. Withey, like Noel, is a player who cleans up his teammates mistakes with his blocking ability. Poor guard defense is much less noticeable if the opposing guard blows by his defender but his layup is blocked into the third row.
This means less room for error for the other Kentucky defenders and the aspects of the defense like rebounding and challenging shots, which Noel did so well, might come a little bit tougher the rest of the season.
Kentucky could already not afford a loss as significant as Noel, and especially now that the chances of a NCAA Tournament appearance becomes more bleak with every loss and poor performance. The season has been unusual by Kentucky fans' standards and now the young Wildcats have possibly their most difficult challenge ahead in the form of a 7-foot road block placed in their path.
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