GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There have been countless visions that Kentucky coach John Calipari has witnessed this season that have made him cringe. Freshman Archie Goodwin driving into a crowd without purpose, fellow frosh Alex Poythress playing without intensity, point guard Ryan Harrow getting abused on both ends of the court and Kyle Wiltjer trying to guard just about anyone.
However, this was the one he couldn't handle. Nerlens Noel on the floor, clutching his left knee, screaming so loudly that fans 50 rows up were able to hear the anguish in his voice.
"I'm physically sick right now for him," Calipari said after a 69-52 loss to Florida. "I'm hoping it's some sort of twist, but we don't know."
The injury occurred with 8:03 remaining and Florida firmly in control. Noel blocked Mike Rosario's shot and then landed awkwardly on his left knee, which then banged into the basket support. Noel lay on the ground for minutes, the Florida crowd silent. Teammates Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin helped carry the 6-foot-10 big man to the tunnel, where he got on a cart and was eventually taken to a Shands Hospital on campus for tests.
The results are still unknown, but it doesn't look promising. One medical source on site told CBSSports.com that it could be three different options: A ruptured tendon, a dislocated kneecap or a torn ACL. Florida big man Patric Young got an up-close look and said that "it looked really bad. He was holding it and it was jingling around."
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It could be devastating news to a club that was barely an NCAA tournament team with Noel in the lineup. This was Calipari's one constant, the guy he could rely on for consistent effort and toughness. Noel was the only player in blue who truly belonged on the O'Connell Center court Tuesday night. This young Kentucky team wasn't ready for this test. Goodwin was a mess, Poythress also resembled a four-year player instead of a one-and-done guy -- and Harrow made zero impact on the game.
"Our young guys looked like deers in headlights tonight," Calipari said.
And now the team's best player could be done for a while, maybe the season.
"We don't know yet," Wildcats coach John Calipari said. "I'm not going to think about that. I'm just worried about the kid right now."
Noel is a potential No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA Draft, almost certain to leave Lexington after this season. He's a game-changer on the defensive end, arguably the best shot-blocker college basketball has seen in the past decade. Yes, that includes last year's National Player of the Year, Anthony Davis. Noel came into the game averaging 10.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game and had eight points and six rebounds in the loss to Florida before leaving the game.
This Kentucky team has been disappointing and now Calipari may have lost his one reliable player. Noel isn't just the best shot-blocker in the country. He's also the heart and soul of this year's Kentucky team. I first met Noel about five years ago, and he's a kid who handles himself the right way, and plays hard on just about every possession. Sure, the Wildcats haven't lived up to the hype, still searching for that elusive resume victory. But Noel has more than lived up to his billing.
"The thing I love about him is how hard he plays," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He has a great motor and always brings effort and energy."
Noel is basically the polar opposite of Poythress, who has a reputation for being "soft" and playing without intensity. NBA folks were high on both Poythress and Goodwin entering the season, but neither are ready for the NBA. Ditto for freshman Willie Cauley-Stein, a raw, yet talented 7-footer who may have more upside and potential than anyone on the entire team.
Calipari could afford to lose anyone -- except for Noel. Kentucky fell to 17-7 overall and 8-3 in an anemic SEC. The Wildcats' most impressive victory is in Oxford against an Ole Miss team that isn't exactly a lock to be dancing come March.
This is an NIT club without Noel in the lineup. Yes, even in 2012-13, dubbed the Year of Parity. We have seen what the loss of Ryan Kelly did to Duke, what happened when Miami was without Reggie Johnson and the effect that Lorenzo Brown's injury had on NC State. Noel means more to this team than any of those guys to theirs.
Noel was the one hope Big Blue Nation had this season. We won't know for certain, but now he may be gone.
And with him, so too would be Kentucky's hopes of doing anything come March.
(Video via Julie Quittner)