LEXINGTON, Ky. — A somber hush hovered over Kentucky basketball players Friday, replacing the jovial atmosphere that usually exudes from this group of Wildcats.
They were just coming to grips with the sudden loss of one of their leaders for the rest of the season, junior forward Alex Poythress.
Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson reservedly talked about Poythress’ devastating knee injury on a routine layup in practice.
But the top-ranked Wildcats don’t have a lot of time to regroup emotionally as they prepare for Saturday’s match with No. 21 North Carolina.
“We definitely have to try to get a win for him and just play hard for him,” Johnson said. “I know if he was out there, he would play his hardest.”
Poythress, 6-foot-8 and 240-pounds, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the school said Friday. A date for surgery has not been set, but recovery typically takes six to eight months.
Kentucky (10-0) will turn to its depth against the Tar Heels (6-2) to fill the void created by Poythress’ injury. He was on the first of the Wildcats’ two-platoon system that has been so effective early in the season, winning games by an average margin of nearly 30 points.
Wildcats coach John Calipari seemed to take a wait-and-see view of that strategy as he tried to grasp the sudden loss of a key veteran.
Asked if he would stick with the platoons, the coach said, “I don’t know. I didn’t spend any time thinking team last night. ... We will figure (it) out.”
Calipari said on his website Friday that Poythress was injured on a breakaway layup without contact. The injury’s freakish nature was what made it so hard for the Wildcats to accept.
Poythress started eight games for the Wildcats (10-0) and averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 20 minutes. The muscular forward was shooting just 38 percent but leads the team at the foul line, making nearly 86 percent. He is third on the team in blocks and sixth in rebounding.
Pursuing a title was a key motivation for Poythress to return for a third season after last spring’s NCAA title-game loss to Connecticut.
Poythress and Cauley-Stein are the most experienced players on a 10-deep roster featuring nine Wildcats at least 6-6. They are featured on the front cover of this year’s media guide.