There was never any question who the heart of this Kentucky basketball team was. He (likely) ended his UK career with 8:03 to play Tuesday night lying on the floor of the O-Dome screaming in pain (maybe the saddest, most horrible sound I’ve ever heard). If that was the last play for Nerlens Noel as a Wildcat, he ended his brief but stellar UK career the way he had spent almost of all the 23-plus games before the injury – hustling and blocking a shot. As the heart of the team he also played his last play the way he had all season – like the heart of a fat man, beating harder than it should have had to trying to will a body farther than it seemed like it wanted to go.
And as this UK team plays its first team without its original heart, it’s high time that it spends some time searching its soul.
The second most disheartening part of the video of the Noel injury that Julie Quittner of the Gainesville Television Network posted Tuesday night (after the injury itself, of course), is the fact that when Noel’s knee buckled, he was the only Wildcat on his end of the court. Go on. Watch it again if you dare. I’ll wait.
Julius Mays – one of maybe three players who DIDN’T spend all of Tuesday night playing like an extra in a Walking Dead episode – makes a bad, lazy pass that gets intercepted and leads to the trouble. He comes closest to making mid-court. Archie Goodwin gets up to a jog. Kyle Wiltjer doesn’t even run. And I can only assume there was a fifth player on the court; he never gets in the shot (given the camera sweep, the only place he could have been was SO deep in the left corner as to have never been in the play in the first place).
The entire sequence is a fair metaphor for how this season has looked. Outside of Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Jarrod Polson this is a team that has all too often looked listless, disinterested and – for some – more concerned about what comes next than what’s happening now.
Without Noel to fall back on, The Cats are faced with a choice about who they want to be and how they want to finish a nearly lost season. We’re no longer talking about having to “turn the corner.” This team is now on a completely different street. They can either reinvent themselves, play with the kind of energy that we have seen far too little of this season and find their way into the NCAA Tournament. Or – if the recent mock selection media exercise is an indication – decide whether they want to play their NIT games in Rupp or Memorial Coliseum.
An NIT trip would be a long way to have fallen from a Top 5 pre-season ranking (that Cal rightly insisted was too high) and a season that started with a great deal of hype surrounding another ballyhooed recruiting class and bizarre alpha-numerical constructions like “D9asty.” (How do you even pronounce that, Dee-NINE-a-stee? What’s that even mean?)
Maybe it’s appropriate that the Cats will play today in an alternate uniform –one they haven’t played in so far this year. Their only hope to move this season forward is to show as a different team from any they’ve been so far this year.