The shock of Alex Poythress tearing an anterior cruciate ligament Thursday removed Kentucky's basketball team from the make-believe world of sports. In a realm protected by cliches and platitudes, everyone accepts injuries. Some may even revel in the romance of the comeback. You deal with it. One door closes/another door opens. Next man up.
"It's all coach-speak," UK Coach John Calipari said when meeting with reporters Friday with his pitchman persona turned down to dim. "The reality of it is the fear and anxiety that Alex has, and we all have for him. It zaps you. It zapped me. It zapped my wife."
Only last season, John and Ellen Calipari had to help their son, Brad, accept and recover from a torn ACL in his junior year of high school.
One moment you're running and jumping and dreaming. The next moment you're crumpled on the floor and unsure when or if your athletic self will ever rise high again.
"To have that just kind of end and not knowing what's going to happen next is the worst part," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who missed the 2014 Final Four and much of last offseason because of an ankle injury that required surgery.
Less than 48 hours after Poythress went down in practice, a zapped Kentucky must play North Carolina on Saturday in one of college basketball's most anticipated games.
When asked about his team's readiness for the challenge, Calipari said, "It's a hard deal. It's hard for all of us. Our practice (Thursday) just went (he exhaled air in an audible poof)."
The happenstance of Poythress's injury added to the shock. Nothing notable happened. No collision. No violent twist. Apparently, Poythress simply rose to shoot and landed awkwardly.
"We were just scrimmaging," Cauley-Stein said. "Normal stuff. And he went up for, like, a fast-break layup and just fell. We thought he was fine. You know, he could bend his leg, and he wasn't feeling the typical ACL pain."
Calipari was unconcerned.
"He went down and yelled," the UK coach said.
The medical people were unconcerned.
"The way he was walking around" masked the true nature of the injury, Calipari said. "It didn't swell that much. ... You're kind of shocked when you're first told."
Calipari said he tried to assure Poythress that a torn ACL in his left knee was not an ending. As former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson liked to say, all sickness is not death.
"You have plenty of time, if you choose, to train and be ready to put your name in the (2015 NBA) draft," Calipari said he told Poythress. "Or you can come back for another year and have your master's."
Poythress is on schedule to graduate next spring.
"This hurts our team," Calipari said he told Poythress. "But you're fine."
Calipari said cold, unfeeling numbers do not reflect what Kentucky loses because of Poythress's season-ending injury. He averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds. He'd made 38.1 percent of his shots (zero for seven from three-point range), got credit for two assists and committed eight turnovers.
Yet, Calipari likened Poythress to Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose.
"Someone who can do things other players can't do ... ," Calipari said.
No doubt, Poythress had a knack for making a dramatic play (think one-handed tip-in dunks against Duke as a freshman) that excited the crowd and his teammates.
"Now, we're different," Calipari said. "You don't have that guy (where) you can play poorly, and he'll go do something, and you're back in the game."
Calipari was not sure if Kentucky will continue to use the much-discussed platoon system of substitution. In that case, someone (Derek Willis) could be elevated into Poythress's role with one platoon while the second platoon remains intact.
Calipari said he had to weigh conflicting factors.
"You don't want to throw a guy to the wolves ...," he said. "That's not fair. How do I give our kids opportunity? Yet, how do you make this fair so the kids on the floor have a true chance of playing well because the guys on the court with them can do this?"
Two seasons ago, Kentucky lost Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL on Feb. 12. The Cats lost the next game by 30 and struggled to an ignominious ending (first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris).
With eight McDonald's All-Americans, plus Cauley-Stein, to carry on, Kentucky seems equipped to remain formidable.
"It just kind of ruins our platoon a little bit (pause) or a lot," Cauley-Stein said. "Nobody can make the plays that he makes. He's a freak athlete who does special things that you can't really replace."
Yet, Cauley-Stein said Noel's injury was more impactful.
"We didn't have any type of depth," he said. "That's the big difference from what we have now. We have multiple guys who can play. Then, we didn't have anybody to fill that spot."
What's more difficult to accept is the notion that sports, like life, can be random and unpredictable.
"It's just crazy why this has to happen to a dude that just does everything right," Cauley-Stein said. "That definitely doesn't deserve to go down with an injury like that."