Can Nerlens Noel Still Win SEC FrOY? A Look at the League’s RacePosted by Christian D'Andrea on February 21st, 2013
Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland. You can find past editions of the SEC Freshman Watch here (East) and here (West).
Handicapping the SEC’s Freshman of the Year race didn’t take much effort back on February 10. Nerlens Noel was fresh off of his third straight double-double and was the anchor behind Kentucky’s rise from the NCAA Tournament bubble to the Top 25. In 10 SEC games, he had averaged 10.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 5.7 blocks per game to lead the Wildcats to an 8-2 conference record. More than halfway through the season, the award was his to lose. Through no fault of his own, he may have.
Noel tore the ACL of his left knee in the middle of a loss to Florida last week, ending his season and possibly his SEC career. His absence has left a big hole around the rim for Kentucky and created a void at the top of the league’s freshman pecking order. With Noel out for the final four weeks of conference play, the Freshman of the Year (FrOY) award is seemingly up for grabs. However, a lackluster crop of first-year players means that UK’s injured center might still be the league’s best bet to win the honors.
The SEC hasn’t had many impact freshmen outside of Kentucky’s heralded recruiting class of 2012, and their struggles without Noel manning the paint have done more to strengthen his argument than chip away at it. Archie Goodwin has responded to his center’s absence by making just 40 percent of his shots from the field. Alex Poythress has struggled to stay on the court and is scoring 5.3 points per game in that same span. Willie Cauley-Stein, the player who was poised to benefit most from the playing time that Noel’s injury opened up, put together more fouls and turnovers than points, rebounds, blocks, and steals combined in his first game in the spotlight. To his credit, Cauley-Stein did had a monster 20-point, three block performance in his next game against Vanderbilt. More importantly, the Wildcats have gone just 1-2 without him – with only a narrow home win over 10-15 Vanderbilt – in that period.
Outside of Lexington, players like Michael Carrera and Gavin Ware have stepped into big roles for losing teams. Carrera’s South Carolina squad has won just three SEC games and Ware’s Mississippi State Bulldogs have just two conference wins. This duo has enjoyed extended playing time thanks to a lackluster supporting cast around them, and neither seems like an especially strong candidate for FrOY honors. Behind them lie a cache of complementary players like Craig Sword, J’Mychal Reese, Michael Frazier, and Kevin Bright in the freshman pecking order. These players could all make a dark horse run at the award – particularly Carrera after his 13-point, 13-rebound performance carried USC past Ole Miss – but they’ll face steep odds.
Realistically, that leaves one destination for the SEC to ship their FrOY trophy to – Kentucky. There, Poythress, Goodwin, and Cauley-Stein will have to bail the water from the Wildcats’ listing ship and prove that this team can come together and be a postseason presence without Noel. If their recent skid turns into a grease fire that consumes their NCAA Tournament chances, then it’s going to be pretty clear who their most valuable player – and the league’s most important freshman – was. Nerlens Noel’s season may have ended after just 10 league games, but unless his supporting cast comes through in a big way, he’s still the odds-on favorite to win Freshman of the Year honors in the Southeastern Conference.