Nerlens Noel helped the Kentucky Wildcats beat the SEC leading Mississippi Rebels last night and give his team a much needed top-25 win for their NCAA Tournament resume. Noel notched a Kentucky record, 12 blocks in the contest.
More impressive than his 12 blocks are that he recorded five of them in the last 8 1/2 minutes of the game. More impressive than that is that he played the last 8 1/2 minutes with four fouls. That’s right, four fouls. Noel is unlike any player in the country. Not only is he just a freshman that plays big minutes for one of the most storied programs in the country, but he does so for a team that was just led by a freshman Anthony Davis, the top pick in the NBA Draft last season.
There is a massive amount of pressure on him to uplift the Wildcats for head coach John Calipari, as Davis did last season. Last night proved that Noel is ready for the challenge. His ability not only to block shots but alter shots when teams get into the paint on the Wildcats will be the reason that the Wildcats will make another Sweet 16 appearance this season.
With teammates Kyle Wiltjer, Alex Poythress, Ryan Harrow, and fellow freshman star Archie Goodwin, the Wildcats are developing a core of players that are starting to build chemistry for their Tournament run. Last night was a signature win for Kentucky and they will need to get two more wins against quality opponents to secure their tournament resume. The Wildcats play the Florida Gators, Missouri Tigers and also have the SEC Tournament, so they will definitely have their opportunity to beat highly-ranked teams.
The great news for Calipari is that Noel has tons of room to grow as the season progresses and here is why. Anyone who watched last night’s game clearly saw that Noel had the biggest impact on the game. He had 12 blocks and altered countless others. Noel also deterred others from even driving the ball to the lane, which is why the Rebels shot selection and shooting percentage may have been so suspect last evening.
Noel also gathered seven rebounds and dished out two assists. He also had two points…yes, two points! Noel was 0-1 from the field and 2-8 from the foul line…yes, two points! Imagine what his impact will be when he is a true threat on both ends of the floor. Imagine if Noel gets a true post move and feels more comfortable in the low post. Not only will he get to the foul line more but once he commands a double-team, he will open the perimeter shot for his teammates.
One thing is clear: the confidence that last night’ s win gives this young Kentucky team will propel them for the remainder of the season and into the NCAA Tournament. It is realistic to see how this team can make a Sweet 16 run.
First, they don’t know what pressure is and second, they will be tough to attack because of Noel’s defensive presence and the problems that he poses will be enough to get two wins during March Madness. Third, Calipari has tons of tournament experience and will make adjustments to help his young Wildcats.
Wildcats fans can only hope Noel will have an increased offensive presence to lead them further in March.
Follow Bert DeSalvo on Twitter @CoachDeSalvo