Kentucky entering SEC Tournament
The 2012 NCAA Tournament couldn’t have ended any better for the Kentucky Wildcats. After being shocked by Vanderbilt in the final of the 2012 SEC Conference Tournament, the Wildcats rolled through March Madness, earning wins over Western Kentucky, Iowa State, Indiana, Baylor, Louisville and Kansas. Heading into last years tournament, KU was the favorite to be cutting down the nets at the Final Four. Led by the number one overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft Anthony Davis, Kentucky lived up to the endless hype which seemed to follow them everywhere. After clinching their second National Championship in the past three seasons , the program was forced to completely rebuild following another NBA Draft that saw a record six Wildcats taken in the first two rounds. This was nothing new for Kentucky however, as the 2010 NBA Draft handed the program a similar fate, taking five KU players, including the number one overall pick John Wall
For the Kentucky basketball faithful, it has almost become a tradition. Getting to know and of course love, a new, incoming group of basketball prodigies every fall has become nothing more than the status quo in Lexington. So when another core group of future millionaires packed up and left town for the greener pastures of the NBA at the end of last season, there was simply no reason for concern. With arguably the nations top high school recruit in Nerlens Noel headed to the bluegrass state, all was well and Ashley Judd had nothing to worry about.
Noel, a 6’10 center from Everett, Mass., was ranked in various polls as either the number one or number two player in the country as a high school senior and prior to choosing KU, he strongly considered schools such as Georgetown, Syracuse, UConn, and North Carolina. Projected by many to be a ” millionaire 18 months after high school”, Noel made an impression early in Kentucky’s conference schedule, setting the school record for blocked shots with 12 versus Ole Miss. in late January. In a game against SEC rival Florida on February12th however, Noel would have his first, and very likely only year in the NCAA suddenly cut short. After blocking the shot of a slashing Gator, Noel landed awkwardly, subsequently tearing the acl in his left knee and forcing him to miss the remainder of this season..
With a 61-57 victory over the Florida Gators this past Saturday at Rupp Arena, the Wildcats finished their regular season 21-10 overall, and 12-6 in the Southeastern Conference. A finish good enough to land them the second seed behind Florida in this weeks conference tournament, KU will be awaiting the winner of the first-round matchup between Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Currently led by freshman Archie Goodwin [14ppg], the Wildcats also have five players hovering around the 10ppg mark. Since suffering the loss of Noel on February 12th, Kentucky has gone a very mediocre 4-3 with wins versus Vanderbilt, Missouri, Miss. State, and Florida. They haven’t faired as well away from home however, going 0-3 on the road with losses at Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia during that same period.
There is no denying that the Wildcats are a different team without Nerlens Noel. Widely considered to be the best defensive player in the SEC and possibly the entire NCAA, Noel led his team in blocked shots, steals, and rebounds as well as shooting 59% from the field and averaging just over 10 points per game. Despite Noel’s injury, it seems clear to many that he will follow in the footsteps of Anthony Davis and John Wall before him and enter this June’s NBA Draft. Both the Kentucky faithful and Head Coach John Calipari alike, are well aware that Noel, just as Davis and Wall, most likely only came to Lexington due the NBA’s minimum age requirement. It is also no secret that Noel is extremely limited offensively, and unlike the aforementioned Wall and Davis, would benefit tremendously by returning to Kentucky for at least one more year of offensive development.
While fans of the face of bluegrass basketball anxiously await Kentucky’s first-round game in Nashville on Friday, many have come to accept the fact that this years Wildcats aren’t the favorite heading into the post-season. Those critical of the program have even gone as far to suggest that they’ll need a solid run in this years conference tournament in order to attend the big dance. With so many questions facing this inexperienced team, their post-season fate is now more unsure than ever. As to whether or not these young Wildcats will have the chance to grow together as a team before its center piece joins the ranks of the NBA, remains to be seen. Fans in Lexington however,wouldn’t mind seeing this group end the recent trend of early departures, and return to campus next fall.