Just before sustaining his season-ending injury, Nerlens Noel displayed tremendous athletic ability by chasing down Scottie Wilbekin on a fast break to block the Florida point guard's layup.
There may not be another center in the NCAA capable of pulling off such a play, and Noel may not be able to repeat such a play ever again either after tearing the ACL in his left knee on his landing. The Wildcats' athletic rookie has since expressed his optimism via twitter.
"Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback! I love you all and can't thank y'all enough for the prayers."
Although Noel is staying positive and a return to the hardwood for the shot blocking phenomenon at some point is almost a certainty, a few major questions regarding both his and his team's future have surfaced over the past days.
Kentucky's John Calipari's recruiting skills are second to none. The Wildcats' coach has sent off quite a few of his former players to the NBA, the most notable three being Marcus Camby, Derrick Rose, and Anthony Davis. Since the day Noel committed to UK by revealing the school's logo shaved into the back of signature hi-top fade hairstyle on national television, he was expected to be the immediate replacement for Davis, who was the top pick in the 2012 NBA Draft after leading the Wildcats to the NCAA Championship last season.
Although UK was not quite as dominant this season after losing the majority of its key players to the professional ranks after cutting down the nets, Calipari managed to rope in another top tier recruiting class with Noel at the forefront.
Noel was projected by most experts to be the top pick in next season's NBA Draft prior to arriving in Lexington. Although he was only the fourth-leading scorer on UK with 10.5 ppg, his unique style of play only made professional scouts more intrigued as he also yielded a team-best 9.5 rebounds per game and Division I leading 4.4 blocks per tilt.
The injury coincidentally occurred the same week that Calipari's former superstar Memphis guard Derrick Rose announced his recovery, from the same exact injury, is going slower than expected. There are a handful of players who have recovered from the same surgery such as Baron Davis, Jamal Crawford and Kyle Lowry. However, it is hard to predict how both Rose and Noel will return to action as they both relied on their premier athleticism more than anything.
Noel was one of the qualifying athletes for the NCAA's disability insurance policy prior to the season. The policy only offers protection for career ending injuries though. Noel did enough to secure a position in the first round of the NBA Draft even with his injury, but his rookie salary will be decreased the further he slides on draft day.
Noel would have been one of the top picks in the draft last season, but the NBA's one-and-done rule sent him to Lexington. Instead of entering the most competitive basketball league in the world in good health, Noel will be digging himself out of a hole to start his professional career. Although he has the option to return to UK for a second season, there is a very slim possibility that occurs as it would put his future at risk even further.
While Noel begins to battle back to full strength, Calipari and his Wildcats will still be looking to return to the Final Four. This season has a completely different complexion for the SEC power.
The Wildcats were in the driver's seat in 2011-12 as they made up for their youth and inexperience with pure talent, athleticism and overbearing confidence. At this current juncture, UK is 17-7 and in second place in the conference standings entering its Saturday bout with the Tennessee Volunteers, who it defeated by 10 points on Jan. 15. The Wildcats can use their upcoming trip to Rocky Top to immediately display their resilience and ability to persevere.
With Noel out, Calipari's already thin front line is going to be attacked by foes that were once settling for jumpers to avoid Noel. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer began to show improvement while playing alongside Noel, but the 6- foot-10 Canadian-American is not by any means a defensive anchor or dominant rebounder. Wiltjer's rare combination of height and shooting ability resembles former Marquette and current New York Knick forward Steve Novak's style of play, which makes him a great asset, but not an ideal replacement for Noel.
The vacancy in the middle will shine the spotlight very brightly on Willie Cauley-Stein, who may have had a golden opportunity fall into his lap amid the crisis. The seven-foot, 244-pound freshman certainly has enough size, length, and athleticism to make an impact. The timing couldn't have worked out better for Cauley-Stein, who has been on fire as of late, going 15-of-21 from the field over his last three games.
Cauley-Stein would have been the most celebrated recruit at most schools across the country. He has great size, upside and he even comes from a great basketball pedigree as his father, Willie Cauley, played for Paul Evans's Pittsburgh Panthers in the early 1990's. While many think a lot of the burden of replacing what was lost with Noel will fall on Cauley-Stein, it will actually take a collective effort.
There is not much depth left on the team behind Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer on the interior. To keep its hopes of repeating as champion alive, UK will have to defer to its perimeter players for production the same way Villanova did when it harbored Lowry, Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi, Allan Ray and Randy Foye during its 2005 run to the Sweet 16.
The freshmen tandem of Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress have shown promise already, but they will really be tested on both ends from here on out. Goodwin has shown steady improvement while starting at two guard and pacing the team with 13.9 ppg. His decision making and outside shooting both need to improve rapidly to round out his game, but both are fixable problems.
If Noel was expected to fill in for Davis, Poythress, a 6-foot-8 combo forward, was the logical replacement for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Wildcats' rookie forward does not tower over his opposition in the paint, but he rarely has an athletic disadvantage as he has Hakim Warrick like leaping ability and length.
Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays, who transferred to UK from NC State and Wright State, respectively, will both play vital roles in any postseason effort the team makes.
The Wildcats will need to play much smarter defensively without Noel. The perimeter defenders can no longer pressure their competition and invite them to drive to the rim. Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer will really need to focus on limiting their fouling as well.
While the NCAA Tournament selection committee will take Noel's injury into account, it will not write off UK because of it. Just prior to the 2010 NCAA Tournament, the nationally-ranked Purdue Boilermakers lost their star forward Robbie Hummel prior to Selection Sunday. Although perhaps it may have been seeded higher with Hummel, Purdue was admitted into the tourney as a No. 4 seed.
Noel was not the first NCAA star to go down with a severe injury this season. Lehigh's C.J. McCollum has been sidelined since breaking his foot on Jan. 5. And while the Mountain Hawks were expected to crumble without their star player, they have only lost one game since and are currently tied (with possession of the tie-breaker) with Bucknell atop the Patriot League standings.
The chances of UK repeating as NCAA Champion is very remote, but that was already known coming into the season. It took Calipari over 20 years to win his first title, winning two in a row is an unreasonable expectation.
However, the NCAA Tournament delivers shocking outcomes and unexpected results every time it comes around. It is hard to completely rule out a program that has a coach who has been there, a few players with postseason experience and an "us against the world" mentality.