Now, the Wildcats have to rework the rotation without their biggest star. Kentucky’s tallest player besides Cauley-Stein is 6-10 sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, whose game had recently blossomed along with Noel‘s.
Former Wildcats center Sam Bowie believes the injury might initially affect the team’s psyche, especially with so many young players.
“His teammates will start to second-guess themselves, and that’s just human nature,” Bowie said. “You always say, `We’ll regroup; people have to step up and take their games to another level,’ and that’s been the politically correct thing to say, but realistically speaking it will affect the team mentally.”
Considered the nation’s top recruit last season, Noel led a four-man freshman class also including Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress that was expected to pick up where last year’s championship team left off. Noel has often been compared to national player of the year Anthony Davis because of his size and shot-blocking ability.
While Noel downplayed the comparison, he made clear his pursuit of breaking Davis‘ single-season school record of 186 blocks set last year. A Kentucky-record 12 blocks during an 87-74 victory at Mississippi on Jan. 29 put him slightly ahead of Davis‘ pace, which was set over 40 games.
More importantly, Kentucky’s victory over the then-No. 16 Rebels helped re-establish its credentials as an NCAA tournament team. Their first win over a ranked opponent was part of a season-best five-game winning streak that helped put the Wildcats back in the Top 25 on Monday for the first time since falling out Dec. 3 following consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Baylor.
Tuesday’s game against Florida was supposed to be another big test, but Kentucky trailed by as many as 19 points before Noel’s injury. The Wildcats seemed even more shaken afterward, and their winning streak vanished.
Kentucky visits Tennessee on Saturday before returning home Wednesday against Vanderbilt, providing the Wildcats chances to sweep season series against both schools and stay in the SEC race.
Bowie believes Calipari is capable of motivating the Wildcats to overcome Noel’s absence, band together as a team and return to the postseason _ suggesting that urgency sometimes brings out the best performances.
“I still feel like they’ll make the tournament,” Bowie said, “but whether they have a legitimate chance of making a serious run, that will be determined. With Cal as coach, and I think they have plenty of personnel, they have a chance to be one of the 65 teams invited to the tournament.”
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