The news that Nerlens Noel is lost for the season to an ACL tear has many wondering what the injury will mean for the Kentucky Wildcats' NCAA tournament chances (including whether they will earn a bid at all).
There's no question that it is a huge loss. Noel not only was Kentucky's leader in minutes per game and an all-around force who averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game, but he had the raw talent to make him the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. However, I think that the Wildcats (17-7, 8-3 SEC) still have a very good chance of making the tourney field. What I'm most interested to see now is how they respond. That will tell us a lot about whether this team has a shot to advance past their opening-round game, if they do end up making it.
One of the biggest keys to Kentucky surviving without Noel will be the play of Willie Cauley-Stein. He is going to have to step up in Noel's absence as the team's primary post presence and shot-blocker.
When you look at Cauley-Stein's numbers, they're actually very impressive. He is averaging 7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in just 20 minutes a game. If he can replicate this per-minute performance in expanded action, that will go a long way toward making up for the loss of Noel.
The big question, however, is whether he is physically capable of playing more than 20 minutes per game. And on a related point, can he stay out of foul trouble? This will be key, as opponents start to play through his body more now that he is UK's primary front-of-the-rim defender.
The other two players who will really need to step up are Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress. Both figure to see their minutes increase, and there is room for each to pick up some of the scoring slack (Noel averaged 10.5 points per game; Poythress and Wiltjer average 12 and 11.5, respectively).
As a team, the Wildcats will need to play more zone, which will serve to shorten the game some and give Cauley-Stein some help by buying him some minutes.
If they can do that, and the aforementioned players step up, I think this team still has what it takes to make the NCAA tournament. If you look at the Wildcats' remaining schedule, there are two games in which they'll likely be expected to lose -- Missouri (Feb. 23) and Florida (March 9), both at home -- and four in which they'll be expected to win: at Tennessee (Feb. 16); vs. Vanderbilt (Feb. 20); vs. Mississippi State (Feb. 27); and at Georgia (March 7).
That leaves one game that is a question mark for me: at Arkansas on March 2. If Kentucky can win, the Wildcats will be in really good shape. But even if they just win the games they're supposed to, it will be hard for the selection committee to keep them out of the tournament.
Will they win once they get there? It's tough for me to see that happening, at least right now. It looks as though Ryan Harrow is back in coach John Calipari's doghouse; he melted under the Florida pressure Tuesday night. The guard play will have to be fixed for this team to achieve more than an early exit, independent of the frontcourt adjusting to Noel's absence.
The one thing the Wildcats do have going for them, however, is that they're playing for a cause now. Will playing for Noel be a unifying experience? Will it finally get them to stop playing selfishly and instead play for each other? If so, then the outlook for Kentucky could change from what it is right now.