What a day.
From the heart-stopping moment Nerlens crumpled to the ground on Tuesday night to the minute we finally heard he had torn his ACL and would be out for the season, the Big Blue Nation has been on a roller coaster of emotions. Nerlens’ screams as he clutched his knee on the O’Connell Center floor pierced the hearts of fans and haunted many dreams across the Bluegrass. From there, we pretty much went through the five stages of grief while waiting for the news.
I don’t think many of us spent long here. It became clear that Nerlens’ injury was bad through gruesome photos, video and above all his screams, and with each minute that ticked by without an update, our fears worsened. The staff brought Nerlens home to Kentucky with the team and on Wednesday morning, we found out that Nerlens’ X-rays showed that there was no fracture or broken bones. But still, the MRI loomed over the morning like a rain cloud. Rumors swirled in the comments sections about ruptured patellas, multiple torn ligaments, and panic made everyone fear the worst but always hope for the best. When we finally heard the news that Nerlens had a torn ACL and was out for the season, hardly the worst-case scenario, hearts across the state still dropped like stones.
I’m pretty sure this came before denial for me. A lot of it was anger that a) this happened in the first place; and b) that this happened to Noel. We’ve all waxed on poetic about how special Nerlens is, but it really is true. Noel is a hard worker. He will recover. But it still stings that it had to happen to the one player on the team that left it all on the floor every game and on a play that was living proof of that. There was also anger for the rest of this season, which is teetering wildly in the distance. We all know that Nerlens was this team’s rock. The team will hopefully rally around him, but with this group, that is just a possibility, not a probability. Without Nerlens, the Cats have to prove themselves to the Selection Committee once more, an uphill battle which is beyond frustrating.
I know I’m not the only one who offered up my ACL to Nerlens today. It’s relatively healthy for someone who only moves from the bed to the office chair with a solid 45 minutes of elliptical use in between.
Once we knew the extent of the injury, the BBN spun back into sadness. Something about the somber certainty of those black words on a white screen saying that Nerlens would be out for the season seemed very final. It is very unlikely we will see Nerlens play in a UK jersey again, and Nerlens essentially lost his chance at being the #1 pick in the draft. Yet, after we did some stress eating (and probably drinking), it was time to move on the fifth and final stage…
Now that our blood pressure has returned to normal and our minds have escaped the panicked fog, it’s time to move on. Nerlens’ injury was devastating, but like Cal said, many many players have bounced back from it before. He may not be the number one pick in the draft anymore, but he will likely still be in the top 5, which is higher than he would be right out of high school, according to ESPN’s Chad Ford. Ford said that Nerlens’ year in college helped him go from being a #6 – #14 pick to top five. And haven’t we all agreed over Cal’s tenure that you can’t turn down top 5, especially if you risk reinjury? Some food for thought: on his radio show Wednesday night, Calipari said that the decision for Noel to stay at UK or go pro will be determined by his rehab progress. The most telling sign of acceptance came from Nerlens himself, who tweeted that the injury was a “minor setback for a MAJOR comeback.” Thank you, Nerlens Noel. There aren’t many like you.
On that note, what better way for Nerlens to say goodbye if he decides to go to the draft than to be the “Y” on Senior Day? Wednesday on Twitter, fans suggested that Nerlens be the Y so that fans could have a proper chance to thank him for his contributions. We fully stand behind that campaign, which we have given the moniker “#Nerlens4theY.” Spread it around like creamy peanut butter.
Where does the team go from here?
This is the million dollar question. Judging by the comments section (always a bad idea), many of you have already written this team off. It’s not hard to see why; this squad’s saving grace this season has been Nerlens, and when he had to be on the bench, they were out of sync and hard to watch. Color me an optimist–nay, color me a diehard UK fan–but I can’t just toss this team aside. They’re not dead…yet. Suddenly, this team is being judged not only on what it has done, but what the Selection Committee thinks it can do if they let them in the tournament. NCAA Selection Committee chair Mike Bobinski said on Wednesday that they have four and a half weeks of basketball left to watch Kentucky play and to see how they perform without Noel.
It all starts Saturday in Knoxville. The Cats have two choices: a) let Nerlens’ injury unite them and fight or b) fold. The first three fourths of the game yesterday seem to suggest the latter. But trying times sometimes yield surprising results. It won’t be easy–every single player on the team will have to raise their level of play, especially Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Ryan Harrow and Willie Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein literally has huge shoes to fill in the middle. He’s played well since coming back from his own knee procedure, but he will be asked to do much more now, and while I love Willie, he’s not Nerlens. So let’s not expect him to be. What Willie does in the next month and a half will go a long way in determining his draft stock for this year. If all goes well, he could play himself to a lottery pick. Can we get Willie a pair of jorts, stat?
Cal will have to rework the lineup to find something that will work for this group, which may mean Jarrod Polson plays a more integral part. If there were no excuses before, there definitely aren’t anymore. The margin for error is nil and the season starts now.
With that in mind, let’s put the draining events of the day behind us and move forward.
Some miscellaneous thoughts before we head to bed:
— Cats fans were dealt another blow of bad news when we found out that Nate Willis, the talented JuCo corner who committed to Stoops with dreams of reaching the NFL as fast as possible, tweeted that he doesn’t have the academics to qualify for UK and will play Division II instead. However, word is there is much more to the story, so don’t give up yet.
— Tevin Lawson update: the four-star defensive tackle is currently visiting TCU and afterwards, will visit either Louisiana Tech or Texas on Friday. Lawson’s visit to Kentucky went very well, but he’s quickly picking up interest from other schools and it will likely be a week before we know his decision.
— I can never end on bad news. Here’s a heartening tweet from Denzel Ware, the four-star defensive end who committed to UK on Tuesday:
Kentucky is gone be a great program in a few years can’t wait
— denzel ware (@Juiceman_18) February 13, 2013
On that, I will say goodnight. Let’s get some rest.
(And yes, I know Thursday is Valentine’s Day. Nerlens, will you be our Valentine?)