Block parties common for Kentucky's Nerlens Noel
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Nerlens Noel isn't getting many RSVP's to his block parties.
In fact, opponents prefer to avoid the Kentucky freshman whenever making a trip to the basket.
Noel has been dominating defensively since Southeastern Conference play began, blocking 49 shots in seven league games. His 12 rejections in Tuesday night's 87-74 victory over No. 16 Mississippi set a school record -- he had half of the blocks while playing with four fouls.
Kentucky (14-6, 5-2) enters Saturday's game at Texas A&M (13-7, 3-4) with the 6-foot-10 forward leading the nation in blocked shots at 4.8 per game. Noel has 95 swats, more than halfway to Anthony Davis' record of 186 during Kentucky's championship run last season.
Noel downplays ongoing comparisons to the former All-American, though he wants to break Davis' mark.
"My focus was to be a complete basketball player and I know shot-blocking was one of my specialties," said Noel, who's also averaging 10.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game.
"Blocking shots has been in me from a young age. I always took pride in it pride and have always thought to build on it. It's probably the best thing I've done."
Noel loves it so much that he didn't worry about fouling out on Tuesday against Ole Miss. His only concern was doing what he could to stop the Rebels from going ahead after scoring 16 straight points to close within 73-72 with 4:32 remaining in the game.
Mississippi started that scoring run with Noel on the bench, but he returned to lock down the inside, blocking six shots and altering several others. Kentucky came away with its first victory over a ranked team this season and will embark on avenging last month's home loss to Texas A&M. To do that, the Wildcats will have to better job containing Elston Turner, who lit them up with his 40-point game.
Though Turner hasn't come close to matching that offensive output in the Aggies' five games since beating Kentucky, guard Archie Goodwin expects to shadow him the whole game to ensure there's no repeat performance.
Corralling Turner on the perimeter is more of a concern for Kentucky than controlling the paint.
Wildcats coach John Calipari believes that area is in good hands with Noel, who has blended improved technique and discipline with his shot-blocking prowess. Already considered the team's best all-around athlete -- his steals and rebounds rank 16th and 32nd respectively -- he has learned to stay on his feet longer and that has allowed him to time his blocks better.
"At the beginning of the season I had a tendency to leave my feet, being too anxious to block shots," Noel said. "Maybe that's why I was only getting two, three, four blocks a game. Coach Cal has helped me with a lot of drills that got me right and I've adjusted to the game at this level and have really come a long way defensively.
"I try to keep my body equal. There are times when I won't try to block a shot; I just keep my hands straight up and always have them guessing what you're going to do next."
Though Tuesday night was another example of Noel's tendency to get into foul trouble, his late block of Murphy Holloway without drawing a fifth foul also showed the strides he has made.
"I was going to ride him out because I know he's the one guy with the will to win on this team that you've got to have on the floor or you can't win," Calipari said Friday of Noel's finish.
The Everett, Mass., native has made his presence felt on defense since he arrived on campus.
Noel's size, skills and athleticism made it easy for him to be compared to Davis, who averaged 4.7 blocks per game while leading the Wildcats to their eighth national championship last season. While the rookie and Calipari have stressed differences with the consensus player of the year, Noel believed Davis' blocks record was within his reach.
Kentucky will likely need a deep postseason run to give Noel enough opportunities to match Davis's record, who set the mark over 40 games. But in averaging 7.7 blocks over his past six games, Noel is intent on giving it a run.
Goodwin has noticed reluctance by Wildcats' opponents to challenge Noel.
"I don't think they're hesitating, it's just that they're trying more to draw fouls," Goodwin said. "The only time he fouls is when he tries to reach, but I haven't seen him get called for a foul while trying to block a shot.
"It's more them trying to take it to his body, and you can see the frustration on their faces because it's not working."
Lost in the attention on Noel's blocks is his stamina, especially since 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein has missed the past four games while recovering from a procedure on his left knee. Averaging nearly 32 minutes per contest overall, Noel has played at least 34 minutes in six of his past seven starts.
While that durability has provided plenty of opportunities for Noel to chase Davis, he's happier that his blocked shots are helping Kentucky win games.
"It's not an individual thing," Noel said, "it's about the team and I want the team to go as far as we can go, not for a record I want to break."