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When John Calipari spoke to reporters after Nerlens Noel hurt his knee during Kentucky's loss to Florida on Tuesday night, the most optimism the Wildcats coach could muster was to express hope the injury was "just a twist."
Sadly for Noel, Kentucky and basketball fans everywhere, it was not.
An MRI exam taken Wednesday in Lexington confirmed that Noel has suffered a torn ACL in his left knee. The 6-foot-11 freshman will undergo season-ending surgery later this month, meaning the last image of his college career may be teammates carrying him off the floor in Gainesville after he landed awkwardly while blocking a Mike Rosario transition layup attempt.
"Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback!" Noel tweeted Wednesday. "I love you all and can't thank y'all enough for the prayers."
Noel, the consensus top recruit in the Class of 2012 prior to this season, has been projected as a potential No. 1 pick in next June's NBA draft as a result of his ability as a shot blocker and rebounder. It's unclear how the injury will impact his stock, but DraftExpress.com's Jonathan Givony tweeted that Noel is still the best available big men on the board and will still go somewhere between first and third in the draft.
Considering the lack of elite talent in this year's draft and the number of players who have successfully come back from a torn ACLs, that assessment appears logical. If the choice for an NBA team in search of a big man is between Noel recovering from a knee injury or a healthy Alex Len, those willing to be patient may still consider Noel the better option.
The loss of Noel for the remainder of this season is a crushing blow to a Kentucky team that is no sure bet to make the NCAA tournament now.
Noel averaged 10.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game this season, emerging as Kentucky's most consistent player and best rim protector, rebounder and source of energy on both ends of the floor.
Even with him, the Wildcats have fallen short of preseason expectations, managing only a 17-7 record that includes several suspect losses and a lone top 50 RPI victory against fading Ole Miss. Now Kentucky must try to avoid falling back to the bubble against a schedule that includes home games against Florida and Missouri and a tricky visit to Arkansas to face a Razorbacks team that is formidable at home.
For Kentucky to secure four or five more wins and avoid a nervous Selection Sunday, the Wildcats will need Willie Cauley-Stein to step up in Noel's absence. Cauley-Stein, an unpolished but supremely talented 7 footer, isn't the shot-blocking presence Noel is but he has scored in double figures his last three games.
[Kentucky fans: Check out CatsIllustrated.com for more team coverage]
Frontcourt depth will also be a major issue for the Wildcats. Without Noel, Cauley-Stein is the only true center on the roster, so Kyle Wiltjer may have to guard opposing centers at times and 6-foot-7 Alex Poythress will probably play more power forward.
It cannot be easy for Noel to have his season end so abruptly, but Calipari tweeted that the freshman was upbeat despite the injury.
"I met with Nerlens earlier today. The meeting was really positive, and I loved his attitude," Calipari wrote. "The way he is already dealing with this injury lets me know that he is going to come back stronger than ever."
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