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By LARRY VAUGHT
Dick Vitale admits he was “crushed” when he watched Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel get injured during UK’s loss at Florida Tuesday night on ESPN.
He was even more despondent Wednesday when he learned that Noel, the nation’s top shot blocker (106) and UK’s leading rebounder (9.5 per game), had torn a ligament in his left knee and would not play again this season.
“Something like this just crushes you,” said Vitale. “I liked him. Really liked him. I went to his high school game. I talked to him before the game last night. He is a good kid. He plays hard and busts his butt out there.
“He was so good defensively to make up for offensive shortcomings. He has not even touched his potential yet. That’s why you hate to see this.”
Noel, who averaged 10.5 points per game, had eight points, six rebounds, three blocks and one steal in 23 minutes at Florida before hurting his knee trying to block a shot after a UK turnover.
“Obviously it is a major loss for Kentucky because he was such an impact player on defense,” Vitale said. “Losing a quality guy like that has to hurt you. Others now have to step up and take their play to another level. Willie Cauley-Stein is going to have to really respond with him out.
“They could still be a good team, but not an elite team. Their guard play is too up and down for that, maybe even with Noel from what we had seen. They could not get any rhythm at Florida because of their inconsistent guard play.
“The results don’t lie. Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville. The big games they have lost have not been from a lack of effort or talent. They just don’t have enough veteran players or consistent guard play, and now this.”
Kentucky dropped to 17-7 overall and 8-3 in Southeastern Conference play with Tuesday’s loss. Kentucky plays at Tennessee Saturday and still has games at Arkansas and Georgia left along with home games against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Missouri and Florida.
“I think they will still be in the NCAA Tournament. They have talent and there are games they can win if their kids are up to the challenge, and I think they will,” Vitale said.
The ESPN analyst is just as optimistic that Noel’s future won’t be permanently altered by this injur.
“Many players come back from this type of injury. It will take a lot of hard work, but he can still have a long career,” Vitale said. “The bottom line is a NBA team at the top (of the draft) will talk with UK folks and those who do the surgery. If all goes well, I still think he will be a top three pick (in the June NBA draft) if that’s the way he wants to go.”