Nerlens Noel's season-ending injury raises several questions about the rest of Kentucky's basketball season. One of those questions might not be, seemingly, the most obvious.
"It's not a question of, how do we replace Nerlens?" ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said Wednesday. "It's, how do we adapt to what we have?"
Surely there is not another Noel waiting to replace the player who led the nation in blocks and provided the heart of Kentucky's defense and a credible low-post scoring threat.
Bilas suggested that the UK team must reinvent itself entering the regular season's final 31/2 weeks.
"It doesn't mean, we'll go put somebody else in there and say, 'OK, you go be Nerlens, and we'll be fine,'" Bilas said of the task Kentucky faces. "You can't do that."
Noel had been Kentucky's most productive and consistent player. Even with him, UK had not solidified a place in the NCAA Tournament.
Another ESPN analyst, Fran Fraschilla, acknowledged the magnitude of Noel tearing an anterior cruciate ligament at Florida on Tuesday night.
"Obviously, it devastates Kentucky," he said. "They're going to go into many games behind the eight-ball. They'll win as many games as they should, if not more."
Fraschilla based that assessment on John Calipari's coaching ability. He noted how Calipari put Massachusetts on the college basketball map without the benefit of high-profile players.
"John's a far better coach than some of his detractors give him credit for," Fraschilla said. "John will get the most out of his players."
Fraschilla spoke of UK's "manageable" schedule down the stretch. An NCAA bid is not a "hopeless" aspiration, he added.
Jerry Palm, who calculates the Ratings Percentage Index for CBSSports.com, wrote Wednesday that Noel's injury dealt a "severe blow" to Kentucky's chances for an NCAA Tournament bid.
"They need to prove themselves again to the committee (if they even had in the first place)," Palm wrote. "The Wildcats will have to show they can play tournament-quality basketball without Noel. If they can't, they won't get selected. It's that simple."
The biggest hurdle will come at Tennessee on Saturday because Kentucky players may still be mourning the loss of Noel, Fraschilla said.
"A piece of your heart has been taken out," he said.
ESPN's Dick Vitale said Kentucky remains an NCAA Tournament team. But the loss at Florida exposed a problem that Noel's presence helped hide.
"You don't have to be a Harvard graduate or a Rhodes Scholar to see they don't have consistent perimeter play to be what you would classify as an elite team," Vitale said of the Cats. "They will still win their share of games."
The most obvious candidate to play center for Kentucky is 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein.
"He's going to have to produce in the middle for them," Vitale said.
Bilas spoke of the "opportunity" presented by Noel's injury. "Coaches talk all the time about opportunity," he said. "You never know when your opportunity is going to come. There is an opportunity."
Cauley-Stein (and Julius Mays) led UK with 10 points at Florida. He also equaled Noel's team-high six rebounds. He's scored double-digit points in each of the last three games. He's averaged 5.3 rebounds and 20.3 minutes in that span.
"He's coming along," Bilas said of Cauley-Stein. "... He'll have to play more.
"But, who knows? Everybody may have to do different things."
UK might go small with four guards and forward Alex Poythress as the big man, Bilas said. Or UK might go relatively big with Kyle Wiltjer joining Poythress and Cauley-Stein in a retooled front line.
The Cats might press and speed up opponents. The Cats might try to slow the tempo and shorten games.
"It is going to be a new team," Bilas said. "You have to adapt."
Bilas dismissed the notion that an injury to a key player like Noel in mid-February came at a bad time. What would be a good time for such a development?
"Fans can cry, have a drink or light a candle," Bilas said of UK's predicament. "That doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is what the team does. You have to play. There is a game Saturday and that game is coming whether you're ready or not."
No. 25 Kentucky at Tennessee
When: Saturday, 1 p.m. (CBS-27)
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com