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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The screams were audible on press row.
Nerlens Noel, the projected first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and the indisputable best player for the Kentucky Wildcats, was in agony beneath the basket. He clutched at his left knee, everything suddenly and painfully in doubt – for him and for his team.
That jarring development overshadowed Florida's 69-52 whipping of Kentucky. When Noel went down, the outcome of the game – which was already decided – became secondary.
Really, the outcome of Kentucky's season is secondary, although the injury – a torn left ACL that was confirmed by Kentucky on Wednesday and will require six to eight months of recovery time – increases the chances of the 17-7 Wildcats missing the NCAA tournament. The greater issue is Noel's future, and the way it is put at risk by a system that forced him to play college ball for a year instead of going straight into the NBA draft.
Noel may have gotten hurt in 2013 no matter where he was playing, but at least he would be under contract and well-compensated by whatever NBA team would have drafted him in the first round last June.
Instead, he wound up playing for scholarship money at Kentucky. And while that is nothing to sneeze at, Noel's presence on campus represents restraint of trade and a bastardization of what college is supposed to be.
He wants to be a pro basketball player. Let him be a pro basketball player without the charade of college delaying it. Unfortunately, that was not an easy option.
If this injury compromises Noel's draft status, it's on David Stern and his league's minimum age requirement.
In addition to the audible pain under the basket, Noel did not put any weight on his leg and was carried off the court by teammates Archie Goodwin and Julius Mays. The Florida crowd, which had been hushed as he writhed on the floor, gave him a standing ovation.
"It looked ugly," Kentucky coach John Calipari said, later adding, "I'm physically sick right now for him."
Florida's Patric Young, who wound up beneath the basket with Noel, told the Palm Beach Post: "His leg was wobbly, knee looked dislocated. It was gruesome. I don't want to think about it."
No college athlete with a viable pro future wants to think about it. Yet it's the risk they play with every game.
If it was Noel's final play as a collegian, it was an appropriate one: he flew in and swatted away a Mike Rosario layup with his left hand. Noel is the best shot-blocker in America, and his effort – in addition to his startling athleticism – has been a big reason why.
"I admire the way he plays and I admire his energy," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "The injury came from a hustle play, and he's a hustle-play guy. I think everyone admires, in this league, the way he plays the game."
For long stretches Tuesday, Noel was the only Wildcat playing with the fearlessness and aggressiveness required to beat No. 7 Florida on its home court.
For the most part, the experienced Gators had their way with the callow Cats. Donovan's guards dominated Calipari's, and frontcourt players Young, Erik Murphy and Casey Prather made all the right plays on both ends of the court.
Kentucky looked lost for much of the game.
"We just played soft," Mays said. "Scared."
What's truly scary is Kentucky going forward without Noel. This is not a great team by any measurement, and its NCAA tournament position is tenuous. With the team's leader in rebounding, blocked shots, steals and energy gone, there may not be an NCAA berth.
The Wildcats are in possession of just one RPI Top 50 win, over fading Mississippi. There are a lot of quality losses, but also a home upset at the hands of mediocre-at-best Texas A&M.
Most armchair bracketologists have Kentucky in the range of a No. 9 or 10 seed at this point. And that seeding was obviously based on having Noel in the lineup for the NCAA tourney.
Without him, more losses are likely, even in a wretched SEC. There is a rematch with Florida on March 9 in Lexington and a home game against Missouri on Feb. 23. After that, every opponent is outside the current RPI Top 50, but still potentially problematic. That starts with a Saturday game in Knoxville against Tennessee. Even the 12-10 Volunteers loom as a difficult opponent.
"He's a vital part of our team," forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "So we hope for the best."
Everyone hopes Noel will be OK. Everyone hopes that his future is not compromised.
Because the alternative stinks. It would be another indictment of the system if Noel's draft status and earning potential crumpled along with him beneath a basket in Gainesville, while playing for scholarship money.
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