Nerlens Noel’s injury has already started the talk of his draft stock (not likely to drop too much, if at all) and the one-and-done system imposed by the NBA. The other practical factor, though, is whether this injury will mean the defending national champions are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. A month ago, when there was doom and gloom after Kentucky lost to Alabama to fall to 12-6, I projected that the Wildcats would still win the necessary games to profile as a tournament team.
That was based on the assumption that Kentucky was better than their record and capable of adding a couple of quality wins, just like they did at Ole Miss. Since then, Kentucky had won five straight before the loss at Florida. That projection, though, was based on Nerlens Noel playing.
How do we account for this loss? It’s easy to go gloom and doom after injuries, but let’s try to quantify it. Obviously, for Kentucky, fellow freshman Willie Cauley-Stein is going to have to play more minutes and be even more of an inside presence to try to offset the loss. One concerning factor for Kentucky is that they are already toward the extreme when it comes to starter minutes, so this is not a team used to bringing a lot of contributors off the bench. Cauley-Stein can provide some of that inside defensive presence, but he has only two blocks since returning from his own knee injury. He is the primary factor in how much Kentucky can offset the loss, and his emergence will be key.
If we try to look at other teams and how they did after the loss of a NBA talent shot blocker, there are a few recent examples. Gorgui Dieng missed games earlier this year for Louisville, including the matchup with Duke. Fab Melo was suspended last year on two different occasions, including the NCAA tournament. John Henson injured his wrist in the ACC Tournament last year, and missed the NCAA opener. Finally, Festus Ezeli missed the start of Vanderbilt’s season two years ago.
Those four players combined to miss 25 games. Using the fanmatch predictor for the day of each game at kenpom.com, I pulled the projected winning percentage for each game and the results. Those teams were expected to win 19.1 games and actually won 18, which works out to a difference of 76.4% to 72.0%.
I think Kentucky’s drop-off will be a little greater than that because they are in the conference schedule, as well as concerns over depth. If you look at just the games where the team was either an expected underdog or favored to win less than 75% of the time, the dropoff was 6.5%. To put that a different way, the impact will be greater when the matchup is closer.
Pomeroy had Kentucky at 18th prior to the Noel injury. They underachieved in some key games early, but I think most people considered them to be a dangerous team with Noel once the tournament rolled around. I have no problem viewing them as about the 20th best team. Without Noel, I think that moves to about the 40th best team, or roughly a borderline at-large team.
The problem is that their profile was not great for a tournament team before the injury. They still need to either beat Missouri at home, Florida at home, or add a win over Missouri, Florida, or Mississippi in the SEC Tournament, while avoiding truly bad losses.
So what is the guess? I think they still make it, but the margins shrink. The key game is Missouri at home on February 23rd. Win that, and I think they are in, barring losing at least half their other games. If they lose that, then the tall task of beating Florida without Noel becomes almost necessary. The first game out at Tennessee will be a challenge because they are learning how to play without their center, but I’m projecting that Kentucky goes 4-3 down the stretch, adds a win or two in the SEC tournament, and still gets in. The magic numbers: 23 wins and 1 more against another tournament team. 22 wins makes things very nervous, as do no wins versus Missouri, Florida, or in the SEC Tournament.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]