It took about three minutes of game time Saturday before the realization of Nerlens Noel’s absence began to sink in. His Kentucky teammates struggled from the outset against Tennessee in their first game without the talented big man.
If the 88-58 loss to the Volunteers is any indication of how the rest of the season will unfold for John Calipari’s young team—one which had only compiled a fringe NCAA Tournament résumé at best with Noel—then the defending national champs’ detractors, especially Calipari’s, are in for a treat.
Tennessee demolished the 25th-ranked Wildcats inside, shooting 58 percent from the field. Man-to-man defense didn’t work. The zone look was a nightmare. Although only three Tennessee players finished in double figures, the Vols had their way on the boards (33-to-20 advantage), got to the free throw line (31 attempts) and took full advantage of the Wildcats’ lack of a post presence. Noel’s backup/running mate, freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, may very well be a good player in the future, but Noel is much more polished at this point in his career. The loss of him hurts on many levels.
On a weekend filled with jump-off-the-screen statistics, the 30-point loss by Kentucky was not to be taken lightly: It was the worst loss by a Calipari-coached team since 1989 , his first-ever season at UMass. In fact, the other four of Calipari’s most horrendous losses all came during that first season.
Now, it should be pointed out that Kentucky was already suffering from its own set of problems that Calipari noted before the campaign kicked off; this year’s team is certainly not on the same level as last year’s 38-2 squad. (Some have even pointed out that Coach Cal is simply building his “perfect-season team” for next season, with yet another top-tier incoming class expected to bolster the roster.) But it’s impossible not to notice Noel’s immense contribution to the Wildcats, as well as his NBA potential.
All of that, of course, was derailed against the Florida Gators, when the 6-foot-11 center (10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game) went up for a block and buckled his left knee on the landing—putting not only his NBA draft stock but his future earning potential at risk . It’s one of the last things anybody wants to see happen to such a talented young man funneled into the NCAA system. Kentucky is feeling the consequences of his absence in the worst way.
Let’s just hope Nerlens Noel’s basketball future isn’t in similar peril.
As previously mentioned, while watching wrap-up shows and halftime highlights, there were historical statistics readily available for consumption Saturday—but one linking Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird to a current player provided real perspective.
Creighton’s Doug McDermott may not be a household name (at this point in college basketball, who is?), but he’s one of the best the sport has to offer and is a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate. Not only did the high-scoring forward help end his team’s three-game losing streak, he also joined the realm of basketball greats—at least in Missouri Valley Conference terms.
McDermott became just the third player in MVC history to score 2,000 points in his first three seasons. He’s had an impressive career, the type many expected of his former high school teammate Harrison Barnes.
Instead, McDermott pulled off what former Missouri Valley legends Kyle Korver, Darren Brooks, Hersey Hawkins and Xavier McDaniel could never do: he elevated to the realm of Bird and Robertson. Collegiately, that is.
McDermott has firmly planted himself on the MVC’s Mt. Rushmore.