No team has repeated as the college basketball national champion since Florida in 2006 and ’07, and it now appears that those Gators have played a role in Kentucky not winning a second straight national title this year.
No. 7 Florida beat No. 25 Kentucky 69-52 in Gainesville on Tuesday night to end a five-game losing streak in the series and all but clinch the SEC’s regular-season title for the Gators. The big news, however, was an injury suffered by Kentucky star freshman forward Nerlens Noel.
The 6-foot-10 Noel was trying to chase down Florida’s Mike Rosario on a fast break in the second half but landed awkwardly on his left knee and then slammed the knee into the basket support. It looked bad immediately and Noel, who could be heard screaming immediately after the injury, had to be carried off the court.
X-rays on Tuesday night were negative, but the bad news arrived Wednesday when Noel was diagnosed with a torn ACL that will end his season and essentially end UK’s championship hopes. The injury dropped Kentucky’s national title odds at Bovada from 28-1 to 40-1.
Before leaving, Noel had eight points, six rebounds, three blocks and a steal. He had started every game this season for the young Cats, averaging 10.5 points on 59 percent shooting. Noel led the team in rebounding at 9.5 per game and was No. 1 nationally with 106 blocks. He even led the club with 50 steals. Noel is the first player since Navy’s David Robinson in the 1986-87 season to average at least 10 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.0 blocks and 2.0 steals per game.
After an uneven start to the season, Kentucky (17-7, 8-3 SEC) had started to play well, winning five straight and seven of eight before running into the Gators. Noel had double-doubles in the three games leading into Tuesday. He was turning himself into a near clone of last year’s Kentucky star Anthony Davis.
Noel also was in the argument to be the No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, presuming he was going to be one-and-done like Davis was. Noel will need anywhere from 6-8 months to recover, meaning he may or may not be ready for the start of next season. It has been almost nine-and-a-half months since Bulls star Derrick Rose tore his ACL, and he’s still not back.
Now Kentucky has to regroup, with fellow freshman Willie Cauley-Stein likely to see plenty more playing time. The 7-footer is incredibly raw, averaging 7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 20 minutes per game. However, UK will need the big man; the team doesn’t have any other players taller than 6-foot-7.
It’s even conceivable that Kentucky could miss the NCAA Tournament entirely now. The Wildcats have an RPI ranking of 44 with just one win over an RPI top 50 team: fading Mississippi. Ten of Kentucky’s wins have come over teams ranked 200 or higher in the RPI. UK finishes at Tennessee on Saturday, at home against Vanderbilt, Missouri, Mississippi State, at Arkansas and Georgia and home to Florida in the regular-season finale before the SEC Tournament.
Perhaps the only sure wins on that schedule are against the Commodores and Mississippi State in Lexington, where Kentucky has lost twice this season. The Gators, Bovada’s national title favorites at 5-1, are the only ranked team remaining so UK’s RPI won’t be improving. That Ole Miss victory is Kentucky’s only win over a ranked club this year and the Rebels are no longer in the Top 25.