Prior to the stomach-turning knee injury that star Kentucky Wildcats freshman Nerlens Noel suffered in Tuesday's 69-52 loss to the Florida Gators, John Calipari's talented team finally looked to be jelling at just the right time.
Unfortunately, the journey to repeating as national champions depended heavily on Noel being the nation's premier paint enforcer. His long-term loss will ultimately thwart Big Blue Nation's bid to cut down the nets in Atlanta's Georgia Dome come April.
For now, the news is at least somewhat positive regarding Noel, according to ESPN's Andy Katz:
Andy Katz @ESPNAndyKatz
Keep in mind that the MRI is the key thing to determine any kind of structural damage to Noel's knee. But at least X-rays were negative.2013-2-13 15:23:16
But for anyone who saw the awkward landing Noel endured when trying to break up a Gators fast break, it certainly wasn't pretty. As Katz notes, the MRI to be conducted later today will determine whether there is ligament damage or not—and there very well could be.
Noel leads the country with a whopping 4.5 blocks per game, including a ridiculous 12-swat performance against then-No. 16 Ole Miss in Oxford. The Wildcats had finally sneaked their way into the AP Top 25 once again.
Without the type of imposing presence Noel brings, though, the Wildcats don't have enough on the defensive end to contend with the higher-caliber teams in the NCAA tournament.
A recent positive development for Kentucky has been the play of another stellar freshman in Willie Cauley-Stein. The seven-footer has been very efficient offensively, putting up double-figures in each of his last three contests. He also has the ability to be a shot-blocking force and will need to rise to the occasion much more frequently in Noel's absence.
Cauley-Stein recently returned after a brief hiatus due to his own knee injury, and he, along with Alex Poythress, can help absorb the lack of rebounding. But the scenario surrounding Noel—and resultant consequences—seems a lot more severe.
It's a shame, because Noel is considered by many to be a top contender for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. He was just beginning to round into form and realize his potential as the conference season got underway, and now it may be awhile before he is ever even able to grace the court again.
The unique athleticism that Noel brings to the table was key in allowing Kentucky to play an up-tempo style to suit its high-scoring capabilities. But a lot of that was dependent on Noel masking a lot of deficiencies on the other end, inviting dribble penetration and rejecting any ready takers at the rim.
Suddenly, he has been removed from the picture in the blink of an eye. Considering how well this squad was coming together with Noel as the focal point, it's hard to imagine another repeat.
There is enough talent and cohesion in this freshman-dominant rotation along with senior transfer Julius Mays to get the Wildcats to the Sweet 16.
However, without Noel, there is no hope of making it to Atlanta and truly providing a formidable defense of their national championship crown.