When Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel crumpled to the floor, Dr. Ben Kibler knew.
Kibler, a Lexington-based orthopedic surgeon whose patients have included several prominent professional athletes, knew immediately that Noel had torn an anterior cruciate ligament in Tuesday night's game at Florida. Others, including UK Coach John Calipari, watched with their hearts and hoped it wasn't a significant injury. But Kibler knew the sobering truth.
"That was about as classical an injury mechanism for an ACL as you'll ever see," Kibler said. "I knew the second he landed."
Noel tore the ACL in his left knee as he came down after jumping to block a shot by Florida's Mike Rosario. As television replays suggested, Noel seemed to gauge the distance to Rosario and the on-rushing basket support as he ran to catch up to the fast-breaking Florida player. This look before he leaped was likely a fateful decision.
"One of the more common denominators is there's a little bit of a distraction," Kibler said of medical research into ACL injuries. "Looking up or looking back. A lot of times, you'll be just a little distracted, and if you land with your knee just a little bit awkwardly, all the momentum just goes ahead and loads that knee."
Noel landed awkwardly on his left knee. A photograph by Charles Bertram in the Herald-Leader on Wednesday showed Noel's left knee grossly bent. When he saw the photo, Kibler just hoped the UK player did not tear several ligaments and sustain cartilage damage and/or broken bones.
"A very graphic demonstration of the twisting, the shear that goes on in those injuries," the surgeon said. "You had a perfect storm: going too fast and not being able to stop soon enough, and I'm sure he was trying to avoid either the player (Rosario) or the end of the floor."
UK announced Wednesday that Noel tore the ACL but did no further damage to the knee. Noel is expected to undergo surgery within the next three weeks. He is expected to need six to eight months to return to basketball.
Later Wednesday, Noel tweeted a can-do attitude.
"Minor setback for a MAJOR comeback!" he posted on his Twitter account before conveying a message to UK fans. "I love you all and can't thank y'all enough for the prayers."
Former UK player Derek Anderson sent Noel a supportive tweet. By the way, distraction played a part when Anderson tore an ACL in the 1996-97 season. He turned his body to receive a pass. Not fully looking where he was going, he tore an ACL merely taking a step.
"This will make u much stronger, physically and mentally," Anderson tweeted Noel. UK Athletics re-tweeted the message.
Calipari spoke hopefully, almost wishfully, in the post-game news conference about Noel's status.
In a statement Wednesday, the UK coach saluted Noel's spirit in the face of bad news.
"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," 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 good news is he is insured, so he would have been fine even if the injury would have been worse. Obviously this is not a career-ending injury and it's one that athletes bounce back from all the time."
UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy said Noel is covered by the NCAA-approved disability insurance program in case of career-ending injury.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who said the sight of Noel going down "makes you sick," also noted how athletes (Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, most recently) return from torn ACL injuries.
"These aren't catastrophic injuries anymore," Bilas said. "They used to be career-threatening. It's just career-delaying now."
Another ESPN analyst, Fran Fraschilla, called it a "tragic injury." But he noted the circumstances: Even though Kentucky trailed by 12 and seemed to have little chance to win, Noel ran to prevent Florida and Rosario from cashing in on a UK turnover.
"That tells you all you need to know about Nerlens," Fraschilla said.
Noel has been among the nation's leaders in blocks, steals and rebounds all season. He entered the Florida game as the nation's leader in blocks (4.48 per game), 24th in rebounding (9.6 per game) and No. 40 in steals (2.13 per game).
He had been named the SEC's Freshman of the Week the past four weeks, which had only been done one other time: by former UK point guard John Wall in November-December of 2009.
Noel's season ended with him averaging 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks.
Like the Lexington surgeon, Noel's ex-AAU coach knew the injury was serious.
"That kid's been around the block," Leo Papile said. "He's played football. He wouldn't go down like that unless he was genuinely hurt, and he certainly was."
Herald-Leader staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this article.Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com