John Clay

John Clay: Noel injury proves bad breaks inevitable — even at Kentucky

Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel was tended to after severely injuring his left knee on a play against Florida on Tuesday.
Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel was tended to after severely injuring his left knee on a play against Florida on Tuesday. McClatchy-Tribune

It's nobody's fault.

It's not David Stern's fault. The NBA commissioner is doing his job in protecting his business interests, clinging to a rule that allows franchises another year to evaluate talent as high school graduates play a year of college basketball, like it or not.

It's not that cameraman's fault, the one sitting in a chair below the basket. He's the one Nerlens Noel appeared to be trying to avoid as the Kentucky center landed awkwardly on his left knee Tuesday night. Noel's ACL was torn. His season and probably his college career have met a premature end.

It's not the officials' fault. Or Billy Donovan's fault. Or the Florida fans' fault. Or the NCAA's fault. It's not even Rick Pitino's fault.

In horse racing, it's called a "bad step." In other sports, it's called a bad break.

That's not something we've said much around here during John Calipari's four-year run as UK basketball coach. Truth is, we were overdue.

Before this season, how many games has a Calipari starter or significant contributor missed because of illness or injury? One? Two? Three? Maybe.

John Wall missed a game Calipari's first season because of an NCAA suspension. Terrence Jones sprained a finger last season. That's about it.

This season alone, Ryan Harrow missed four November games with a mysterious illness. Willie Cauley-Stein missed four games recently after a minor procedure on his left knee. Given recent history, that seems like a rash of injuries.

Moreover, how many times in the first three seasons has a star-studded prospect not lived up to his press clippings?

This year, Harrow is having his struggles. Archie Goodwin is having his struggles. Alex Poythress is having his struggles. A team ranked No. 3 in the pre-season is about to fall out of the top 25 yet again.

In every life, a little rain must fall, right?

Noel is the one player who has lived up to his hype. Not the Anthony Davis hype. He's not A.D. He's never going to be. He's Nerlens Noel, a shot-swatter extraordinaire who gets the most out of his minutes. In fact, as Florida's Donovan so aptly pointed out Tuesday night, it was a hustle play — Noel sprinting back to block a Florida shot after a UK turnover — that ended in injury.

What struck me was the emotional aftermath. It wasn't just the Big Blue Nation whispering prayers and tweeting best wishes. It was all of college basketball. A sense of a college hoops community came through. There are few things, after all, worse than seeing a talented 18-year-old basketball player laying on the floor, screaming out in pain, his future in doubt.

"Everybody chokes when they see someone cut down their prime." (Hat tip/The Pretenders.)

With all this talk about one-and-dones, it has been amazing how attached UK fans have gotten to the short-timers in a short period of time. John Wall. DeMarcus Cousins. Brandon Knight. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Anthony Davis. All felt the love and embraced the loyalty.

Poor Nerlens Noel didn't even get to complete the 'one' part of one-and-done.

For this Kentucky team, the immediate future is grim. If the first 32 minutes proved anything Tuesday, it's that this team can be good, not great. Even with Noel.

All that talk about recent improvement was exposed as empty rhetoric inside the O-Dome. Florida was bigger, stronger, smarter. The Gators proved themselves a cut above, even before Noel took his fall.

Now Calipari has to remake a rotation already in flux. It's a team he says hasn't figured it all out. Now, its coach has to figure something else out.

As for Noel, I have no doubt he'll be fine. Modern medicine is a marvelous thing. Noel has the work ethic for rehab. He can put a picture of Adrian Peterson on his wall. Inspiration.

Still, my guess is Noel has played his last basketball game at Kentucky. Why risk hurting the knee again for free in college when surely an NBA team would be willing to take a risk on a rehab project with such unique talent? No reason to roll those dice twice.

Bottom line: Calipari has talked incessantly about life lessons lately. This is another one. Bad things happen to good people. Charmed existences don't really exist. Not forever.

Even at Kentucky, even in the John Calipari era, there is such a thing as a bad break.

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