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Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: Time to honor, time to rally

Honoring Kentucky's fallen leader. This Wildcat team has no choice.

Time to honor Nerlens.
Time to honor Nerlens.
Andy Lyons

Noel injury update: 9:33 a.m. CST: Per John Hayden, UK's associate director of athletic media relations: the x-rays taken last night on Nerlens Noel's knee were "negative." An MRI will be performed this morning.

As the Big Blue Nation anxiously awaits official word on the condition of UK center Nerlens Noel after the big man suffered one of the most horrific, gruesome basketball-related injuries I've ever witnessed ...

It's time for the BBN to rally 'round Nerlens ...

It's time for the Kentucky Wildcat basketball team to rally 'round its leader, and honor him by doing what this team has yet to do.

It's time for each UK player and coach to honor Noel for what it is he means to this Wildcat basketball squad. And I'm not referring to Noel's points per game, his blocks, his rebounds, his assists, or steals. I'm referring to the fact that Nerlen's has been the heart, soul, and hustle of this basketball team since Day 1. Since Midnight Madness, since the Blue/White game, Nerlens has been the first 'Cat on the floor fighting for a loose ball. Noel has been the first to sprint down the court to defend his basket. Nerlens has been the first to lead, not always with his mouth, but persistently with his actions.

Noel's example of 100 percent effort, never more exemplified than by the play he was injured on as he raced down the court to (successfully) defend the Wildcat rim after a UK turnover, simply demands that he be honored by his teammates and 'Cat fans everywhere.

This Wildcat basketball team, a study in youth and youthful rebellion, surely understand that it is their absolute responsibility to re-examine their dedication to becoming, not only the best players they can be, but to becoming the best team they can be, by playing basketball like they never have before.

And 'Cat fans, it's not about wins and losses, anymore. It's not about a Final Four run or an SEC championship, or winning 25 or 30 games. It's about much more than that. It's about honoring the Wildcat most likely to endure a floor burn. It's about honoring the play of the team's emotional leader. It's about honoring the manner in which Nerlens sustained his terribly tragic injury.

It's about this basketball team honoring Nerlens Noel for his effort, for his willingness to be a blank page, eager to accept his hard court shortcomings, and then willing to work to become the best player he can become during his time in Lexington.

From this Kentucky basketball team, anything less than a sincere dedication to respecting and honoring the all-too short legacy of Nerlens is unacceptable, and furthermore, undeserving of the privilege of wearing a Kentucky uniform.

Kentucky basketball fans, to a man, to a woman, to a child, have always held close to the heart those Wildcat players who displayed the intensity and desire Noel exhibited from the first Wildcat game he played, to what will most likely be the final UK game he ever performs in. It's Noel's undeniable desire which is endearing. It's his effort which is endearing, it's the image of Noel, leaving his zone, hustling, rising above mere mortals to swat a shot away which endures, endearingly.

Perhaps not as talented or God-gifted as some of the Wildcat All-Americans UK fans have had the pleasure of watching over the years, it was early-on in his UK career that Noel grasped what it took to get better. Arriving late to campus because of an NCAA review of his high school work, Noel was well behind his teammates both physically and in the mental journey high school players make as they (sometimes uncomfortably) morph into Wildcat superstars living in a fairly transparent fish bowl.

Most of Noel's teammates had been on campus for a few months; running, working out, lifting weights and becoming quickly acquainted with UK's weight and conditioning task master, Rock Oliver.

But it was Noel who embraced the work after his arrival. It was Noel who was excited about how much better he could become. It was Noel who understood the concept of accepting being coached, as he gave in to the reality that in order to achieve greatness, tremendous effort and an open mind were required.

After arriving late in Lexington, it was Noel who surpassed his teammates because of his attitude and work ethic, becoming the leader of this basketball team.

Because of that, Noel deserves his teammates' admiration and respect. Because of that, Noel deserves to be honored by his comrades by virtue of the 'Cats selling-out to the thought that they are going to play each game as if it's their last. That's how Nerlen's played, and anything short of honoring him by playing as he did, is certainly not worthy of consideration. It's not worthy of these players, not if they are wearing Wildcat blue and white.

It was after the ghastly injury. It was after the implication of Noel's injury sunk in, that my mind began to wander, thinking of Patrick Patterson. For it was Patterson, without question the best player on the 2008 Wildcat squad, who suffered a season-ending injury with only three regular season games remaining, and the 'Cats in a dogfight to secure an NCAA tourney bid.

It was a UK team, bolstered by the memory of Patterson and what he meant to that squad, who rallied around each other, playing each game with unbridled enthusiasm, and an effort they probably didn't think they were capable of.

It was an undermanned, Patterson-less team that traveled to Knoxville to take on the No. 1 Tennessee Vols. It was a game UK could have (and probably should have) easily lost by 20, but the 'Cats would have none of that. For laying down while their teammate was injured was simply not an option.

Joe Crawford, Perry Stevenson, Ramel Bradley ... the entire Wildcat team put one another on their collective backs and fought, and scrapped their way to within three points of the nation's top team only a few days after learning Patterson was lost for the season. The team played with such inspiration and desire in the loss, that after the horn sounded, sealing the 63-60 Wildcat setback, longtime UK equipment manager Bill Keightley sat weeping in the post game locker room, proud. Proud, because Mr. Wildcat had just witnessed a singular desire to win. A singular desire to honor the player who most exemplified what being a Kentucky Wildcat is all about.

With a fallen Noel, the ball is now in the 2013 Wildcats' court, and it's rally time. Although the 2008 UK team lost three of the five contests they played after Patterson's injury, no one remembers that.

UK fans only remember the incredibly passionate effort exerted by that team. Effort which mirrored Patterson's ferocious appetite to win. Will the same be said about this Wildcat squad and their response to Noel's heartbreaking injury?

If the 'Cats are worth their collective scholarships, the answer will be a resounding yes.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!

To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett