What was feared Tuesday night when Nerlens Noel went down with a knee injury was confirmed Wednesday afternoon with the official announcement that Noel is done for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
He injured his knee blocking a shot in Kentucky’s game at Florida.
Noel is expected to have surgery in the next two to three weeks. The normal timetable for the recovery is six to eight months.
“I’ve been coaching for 22 years and this is the first injury we’ve had of this kind during the season, which makes it even more devastating,” John Calipari said. “I met with Nerlens earlier today. The meeting was really positive, and I loved his attitude. The way he is already dealing with this injury lets me know that he is going to come back stronger than ever.”
The 6-foot-10 freshman was leading the nation in blocks (106) and blocks per game (4.4) and ranked second in the Southeastern Conference in rebounding (9.5). He was also averaging 10.5 points per game for the Wildcats while leading them in steals (50).
“Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback!” Noel tweeted. “I love you all and can’t thank y’all enough for the prayers.”
One of the leading candidates for SEC and national defensive player of the year, Noel recorded a UK single-game record of 12 blocks in the game at Ole Miss. Just a few blocks behind Anthony Davis’ record pace from a year ago, Noel will finish the year second on UK’s single-season list.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Noel is the first player since David Robinson in 1986-87 to average at least 10 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and two steals per game.
“The good news is he is insured, so he would have been fine even if the injury would have been worse,” Coach Cal said. “Obviously this is not a career-ending injury and it’s one that athletes bounce back from all the time.”
Noel suffered the injury midway through the second half of Tuesday night’s game.
After Florida’s Mike Rosario picked off a pass, Noel sprinted back in transition and blocked Rosario’s layup. As Noel landed on the court, his left knee buckled just as he crashed into the padding of the basket beyond the baseline.
Noel was carried off the court by his teammates and taken to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla.
“We’re all brothers,” graduate student Julius Mays said of carrying Noel off the court. “Win, lose or draw, we always got each other’s back.”
X-rays came back negative and Noel rode the team plane back to Lexington Tuesday night, but an MRI Wednesday morning in Lexington confirmed the torn ACL.
It seemed almost fitting that Noel’s last play of the season was a hustle sequence in which he raced back in transition and blocked a shot.
“It embodies who he is as a player,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said Tuesday night.
Once thought of as potential career-ending injuries, surgery to repair the ACL has become routine in medical world. Current Wildcat Jon Hood tore his ACL in the summer of 2011 and made a full recovery to join the team for this season. Former Coach Cal star Derrick Rose tore his ACL in last season’s NBA Playoffs and is reportedly nearing a return with the Chicago Bulls.
Just this past season, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson returned from an ACL tear and rushed for the second-most yards in NFL single-season history en route to league MVP honors.
It remains to be seen whether or not Noel will return to college for his sophomore season, but he is still regarded as one of the top prospects for the 2013 NBA Draft. In the immediate aftermath of the injury, NBA experts like Chad Ford of ESPN are saying that he is still a top-five pick.
Former Wildcat Derek Anderson, who tore his ACL during the 1996-97 season and went on to a successful NBA career, tweeted to Noel that he was going to help him through the recovery process.
“I’m headed to Kentucky NOW to help you get thru this,” Anderson tweeted. “This will make u much stronger, physically and Mentally. C u Soon LIL Bro(.)”
The Cats declined to speculate after the Florida game on how they would cope without Noel, but now that he’s out, questions must be answered as to how they will move forward without their top interior player and their unquestioned leader.
“Obviously he’s a big part of our team, so just to see him go down, whether it’s major or minor, it hurts us because he’s a big energy guy,” Mays said Tuesday.
Freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who recently returned from a minor knee procedure that kept him out four games, figures to take on a much more prominent role. Freshman forward Alex Poythress and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer already play a lot of minutes, but their presence down low will become even more important. Hood could also see his minutes increase to pick up the slack.
Perhaps knowing he and his teammates were moving forward without Noel for the rest of the year, Wiltjer was asked what they could learn from the loss at Florida.
“We really just got to change our mentality intensity wise and just stay positive,” Wiltjer said. “If anything bad happens, just making sure we’re positive on each other and keep lifting each other up. We’ve just got to bounce back and get better.”