Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy still thought Kentucky had a chance to win the national championship going into this week.
“I wasn’t ready to give up on this team as a possible factor in the (NCAA) tournament. I thought they were coming along. I thought they would lose at Florida, but I just wanted to see a better performance. Even if that didn’t happen, it would not have thrown me off because I still thought they had a lot of time to get where they wanted to be and there is no better person to get them there than John Calipari,” said DeCourcy. “Now what they might achieve is now what I thought possible 48 hours ago.”
That’s because freshman center Nerlens Noel, the nation’s top shot blocker and potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a second half collision and is out for the season.
“Now they have to completely change who they are. Maybe not technical changes, but who they are as a basketball team,” DeCourcy said. “They were largely reliant on Nerlens as a defensive weapon and somewhat on offense. He was really the personality that drove the team. On the one hand, you have a lack of confidence in the point guard and shooting guard, but he has been extremely confident with his play from the first game.
“Alex Poythress has great talent, but does not always play with great energy. Nerlens is nothing but energetic. They have to find a way to find a new team personality in addition to making technical adjustments without him.”
Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch, who regularly covers Southeastern Conference games, knows UK will miss Noel’s defensive presence starting with Saturday’s game at Tennessee.
“But sometimes in these situations, when a team loses a star player, it rallies to make up for the loss. In Kentucky’s case, perhaps if some players were unconsciously letting up on defense, secure in the knowledge Noel was back there to clean up their mistakes, they will now be more focused not to let their opponent past them,” Dortch said.
He knows it will take some players dramatically improving their play for UK to make the NCAA Tournament now.
“The Cats were not a lock with Noel, and now they will be hard pressed to pad their resume without him. But talent wise, 95 percent of coaches in the country would take a four- and five-man combination of Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley-Stein in a heartbeat,” Dortch said. “There’s plenty of talent, but not much depth. Every player on the roster will have to dig deep and come up with effort previously unseen. If that happens, the NCAA is still in play.”
DeCourcy wouldn’t say it would be impossible for UK to make the NCAA, but says it will be a “terrific challenge” for Calipari’s team without Noel.
“They were a borderline team playing their way into a solid NCAA team. What they have accomplished to date lacks in number in terms of quality wins, but they were building a nice resume like Memphis has been doing by winning regularly,” DeCourcy said. “You couldn’t pretend they were not one of the best at-large teams. But you go from that to what you are now without Noel. You don’t have numbers on the one hand to be assured of a berth and now you don’t have Noel. Your job as a Wildcat now is to establish you can still be a great team. Maybe not as great as you were, but still great. But that is really going to be quite a leap for this group without Nerlens.”
Kentucky was ranked as high as No. 3 in some preseason polls, a ranking Calipari said was way too high at the time. DeCourcy says there was some “overestimation” of UK’s talent as well as some not wanting to accept the flaws this team would have.
“I got yelled at a lot for thinking Ryan Harrow would be what he is as a point guard. A lot of Kentucky fans got mad at me for saying this group was not elite and would not match up to what Calipari had before at Kentucky,” DeCourcy said. “I did think with Alex, Archie (Goodwin) and Nerlens would be good and I thought Kyle would be a lot farther along.
“But I did think Kentucky had enough ability to be special and with what I thought would be an ordinary field of college basketball teams, I thought this team could be top five. If you look at what is achieving a top five ranking one day and squandering it the next, it is still not inconceivable to think this could have been a top five team. But they just have not had the right chemistry or right good fortune for that to happen. This is not the first injury. They had Harrow out, had Willie Cauley-Stein our and now this. They just have not had any good luck.
“But for Kentucky fans, you still have last year’s national championship to warm your nights and a talent haul on the way that could be the greatest recruiting class ever, and some argue it is already there.”