LIKE IT IS:

No Noel, no March merriness for Kentucky

By: Wally Hall
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
A cameraman grimmaces after a collision with Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida in Gainesville, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. Noel injured his left knee and did not return. Florida won 69-52. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
Photo by The Associated Press
A cameraman grimmaces after a collision with Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida in Gainesville, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. Noel injured his left knee and did not return. Florida won 69-52. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

— It wasn’t so much like watching a train wreck as it was watching a great basketball program with a coach who is mostly adored only by his team’s fans come unhinged at its own hands.

John Calipari, Kentucky’s head basketball coach, has become known as the master of disaster in his one-and-done approach to college basketball.

Colleges are forced to go by the rules of the professional leagues rather than step up and go back to multi-year scholarships.

The NBA allows college players to enter the draft after a single year of classes or after their 19th birthday.

That’s not old enough to buy an adult beverage in most states, but that’s the NBA’s rules. And Calipari is willing to reload his team with freshmen every year.

Coming off the NCAA national championship, Calipari signed four more headliners, including Archie Goodwin of Sylvan Hills.

Yet, the closest his latest baby boomers had to a true go-to guy was Nerlens Noel, who was averaging 10.5 points per game, 9.5 rebounds and had 106 blocks when he went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament against Florida.

The Wildcats had won five consecutive games and appeared to be peaking going into March Madness largely because of his play.

Without him, it was apparent Saturday against Tennessee, Kentucky might be an also-ran, the most dreaded phrase in the Bluegrass State.

A National Invitational Tournament team. As in playing to be the nation’s 69th-best team and doing so in front of small crowds on a who cares ESPN television broadcast.

Selection Sunday is less than four weeks away and the Wildcats, who have lost two consecutive, get Vanderbilt, Missouri and Mississippi State at home - all easily winnable with Noel - before going to Arkansas and Georgia. They finish the season at home against Florida, easily the best team in the SEC when not playing in Bud Walton Arena.

An NCAA basketball tournament without Kentucky is like SEC football without Alabama.

It is a storied program, and whether Calipari is popular outside of Kentucky doesn’t matter. He’s a great coach and motivator, but most coaches and fans don’t like the one and-done approach to college basketball.

Those who are reveling in what appears will be a colossal fall for the always cocky Big Blue Nation, enjoy it while you can.

Last week, McDonald’s announced its All-America team, long considered one of the biggest honors a high school basketball player can earn.

Hall High School’s Bobby Portis, who will play at Arkansas next season, was on the team, but what jumped out from the news release was he was one of nine who will play in the SEC next season.

Kentucky has five of those. No team is close to having that many; in fact, Duke and Florida are second with two each.

Once again Calipari is willing and able to say, “Next.”

Yet, starting four freshmen, then losing one of those, points to the lack of experience and leadership on the floor.

It wasn’t just that Tennessee, which lost to the Razorbacks 73-60 and is 6-6 in SEC play and 14-10 overall, won. It was how easily the Volunteers handed the Wildcats their worst loss in the 216-game series, 88-58.

The Wildcats looked not only vulnerable, but at times lost without the 6-11 Noel.

Calipari is good, and he’ll have to be to keep Kentucky from being an NIT team next month.

Sports, Pages 17 on 02/19/2013

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