By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
One of the most difficult things in sports is trying to live up to expectations. Fans’ lofty goals for their athletes, particularly at UK, can be enough to make the most talented players wilt under the overbearing pressure.
Luckily for Cats fans this season, freshman center Nerlens Noel has had no such trouble.
20 games into the season, Noel has 95 blocks, two ahead of the torrid pace Anthony Davis set last season when he broke the NCAA freshman record with 186.
The comparison between the two big men has been unavoidable. UK head coach John Calipari has said over and over that it isn’t fair to Noel to compare the two — he is his own player with his own set of skills.
And that resistance has caused Noel to go slightly unnoticed. Given the remarkable defensive numbers he’s posting, one would think he would be getting mountains of national praise. But, for various reasons, he’s not.
“We’re not winning like we were,” Calipari said. “If we were winning like we were last year, he’d be getting all the praise.”
At this point last season, UK had lost one game. They were ranked No. 1 in the country, and Davis was being heralded as the best player in college basketball.
This year’s team has lost six games. They’re not sniffing the Top 25 and have widely been considered a question mark for the NCAA Tournament.
As a result, even in putting up such gaudy defensive numbers, Noel has seen he and his team fly under the radar for three months.
Tuesday’s win over No. 16 Ole Miss on national television, however, may have changed that.
In the Cats’ first win over an RPI Top-50 team, Noel shattered the UK single-game record for blocks with 12. He scored only two points (both on free throws) yet had as big of an impact as anyone on the court.
“He was the difference maker in the game,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “I think we can all agree with that. An incredible defensive presence.”
Even while averaging 4.75 blocks per game, Noel is the first to admit how much he has progressed since he got to Lexington.
“Coming in, you want to block everything there is to block and I was very anxious at the beginning of the season,” Noel said. “We have worked on it and I have come to be more relaxed on defense and anticipate things better.”
That improvement has come to fruition of late. In seven SEC games, Noel has 49 blocks, a rate that has made him the national leader in total swats.
But, it’s not just blocks that make Noel special. The 6-foot-10 center is also leading the Cats in rebounds and steals. His effort level has been one of the few constants Calipari has been able to rely on this season.
“I just told him … take other people with you,” Calipari said. “I don’t care that you’re doing all this and stuff’s good, take some other guys with you … Let’s all play well.”
This week could be the turning point. Noel has been the catalyst, Calipari’s example, for the change he’s worked tirelessly to incite in his young team.
Coming off a big win on Tuesday, the Cats are about to hit the meat of their conference schedule, a time when they have to show the country they are worthy of the tournament seed they expect.
The expectations for the team and Noel were lofty. So far, the team hasn’t necessarily lived up. Noel, on the other hand, may be exceeding them.
And still, as good as he played, he knows how far he has come and where he wants to be.
“I think I have come a long way,” Noel said. “And I still have progress to make.”