Noel living up to huge expectations left by his predecessor

To call someone the “same player” as someone else isn’t usually much of a compliment, but Auburn’s Rob Chubb only meant praise for Nerlens Noel after facing the Kentucky freshman forward for the first time Saturday night.

Just to be compared with last year’s national player of the year, the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and one of the top players to ever put on a UK uniform is praise of the highest form.

Of course, we’re talking about Anthony Davis.

“He’s about the same player,” Chubb said of Noel. “Anthony and him both have great feel for shot blocking. It doesn’t matter if you pump fake them; they’re so long that they can still get to balls.”

John Calipari, who earlier in the season cautioned reporters and fans from making the comparisons, didn’t see any problem with Chubb’s compliment after his team’s win at Auburn.

The only person who seems to have a problem with it is Noel.

“I’m not trying to live up to him,” Noel said. “I’m trying to be my own player and set my own mark and play for my team.”

Regardless, Noel is starting to live up to his predecessor. As unfair as it was to expect Noel to come in and fill the player of the year’s gargantuan shoes, he’s done as good a job as anyone could have realistically expected at the beginning of the year.

The 6-foot-10, 228-pound big man, who was named the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week on Monday, is averaging 10.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.1 blocks on the season, but he’s played particularly strong since the start of league play.

The Basics

What: UK (12-5, 3-1 SEC) vs. Alabama (11-6, 3-1 SEC)
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Coleman Coliseum (15,383)
Game notes: UK | Alabama
Video: Cal, Noel and Polson preview ‘Bama

Alabama File

Record: 11-6, 3-1 SEC
Head coach: Anthony Grant (74-45 at Alabama)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Crimson Tide
Player to watch: Trevor Releford (16.2 points, 41.2 3 point percentage)
Series history: UK leads 102-36
Last meeting: UK won 77-71 Jan. 21, 2012

TV/Radio Coverage

Radio: UK IMG
Live stats: Gametracker
Live blog:

Noel has flirted with a triple-double in each of the last three games thanks to his consistent rebounding effort – he’s recorded at least six boards in every game this season – but it’s been his improved offensive game and patient defense that has transformed him into UK’s most well-rounded and best player.

He’s the only player  in the country standing 6-foot-5 or taller who ranks in the top 30 in blocks (4.1 per game), steals (2.6) and rebounds (9.2).

Maybe he’s not quite as dominant as Davis was a season ago, but he’s been pretty darn close. On a team that’s without players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Darius Miller, he’s been every bit as valuable.

“Defensively, I think I’ve got a lot better,” Noel said. “Coach Cal has made sure I’ve stayed disciplined defensively, staying on my feet. It’s helped me. I’m not going after every ball like I was earlier in the season. I’m blocking a higher (percentage) of shots. Offensively, just Coach Payne, just everything on the block, just working on my touches and things like that.”

Whether it was the pressure to try to match Davus’ school single-season blocked shots record or just an overly aggressive mentality on the defensive end, Noel over-pursued blocks earlier in the season and fell victim to subtle head fakes and jabs.

“It’s a different level from high school where you could leave your feet and still block the shot,” Noel said.

Nerlens Noel has grabbed at least six rebounds in every game this season. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

Calipari noticed and implemented a drill to get his players, specifically Noel, to stay down and not chase after every block.

Noel admitted Monday that he was tempted early in the season to try to block everything.

“Coming in, you want to block everything there is to block,” Noel said. “I was very anxious at the beginning of the season. We’ve worked on it. I’ve come to be more relaxed on defense and just anticipate things better.”

Noel’s recent discipline has paid off.

He’s blocked six or more shots in his last three games and is well on his way to finishing in second place on UK’s single-season blocked shots list – behind Davis, of course. At 69 blocks, which ranks fourth in the country, he’s just behind Andre Riddick (1993-94) and Melvin Turpin’s (1982-83) school second-place mark of 83.

Just for comparison’s sake, Noel is keeping the ball in play on 81.2 percent of his blocks, according to UK’s official blogger, Guy Ramsey. Last year, Davis finished in the high 70s.

“I think I’ve come a long ways and still have progress to make,” Noel said.

Noel’s importance has been magnified by the absence of fellow twin tower Willie Cauley-Stein, who had a minor procedure done on his left knee last week. Cauley-Stein missed the Auburn game and he is questionable for the Cats’ Tuesday night game at Alabama.

“If he doesn’t practice (Monday), probably tell him to stay home and keep getting treatment,” Coach Cal said. “If he practices, we’ll take him with us.”

Calipari said Monday that Cauley-Stein’s absence over the weekend may have created a sense of urgency within his team. Noel admitted that he felt an added sense of accountability with UK’s limited depth in the front court.

“I think there is a lot more responsibility,” Noel said. “I’ve got to make sure I’m staying in the game and taking care of the paint and just really holding it down along with Alex (Poythress).”

Perhaps UK was fortunate that it played Saturday’s game without Cauley-Stein against a rather small Auburn team. Alabama looks to be the same type of team on paper as Auburn with its guard-centric offense, but Calipari cautioned people from thinking UK can just show up –with or without Cauley-Stein – and dominate inside.

“This is a really physically grind-it, bump you, grab you kind of team,” Calipari said. “If you’re not ready for 50-50 balls and that you’re going to be in a war on the court for 40 minutes, you got to relish it. That’s what you want, but if you don’t want that then it’s an issue.”

The good news for Kentucky is the Cats seem to have turned a bit of a corner in the win at Auburn. Calipari acknowledged there was more effort, more smiling and more buying in from his team in the 22-point victory over the weekend.

“Team’s making progress,” Coach Cal said, “and that’s all I can ask.”

Team stats

(national rankings in parentheses)

  UK Alabama
Scoring offense 77.1 (30) 65.5 (227)
Scoring defense 61.7 (74) 59.1 (36)
FG percentage 48.9 (12) 45.2 (85)
FG percentage defense 38.3 (27) 40.7 (105)
3-point percentage 35.7 (96) 36.3 (78)
3-point percentage defense 30.7 (66) 31.3 (88)
FT percentage 64.5 (293) 69.8 (152)
Rebound margin +4.8 (62) -0.2 (198)
Steals per game 7.4 (132) 8.6 (51)
Blocks per game 7.6 (3) 4.6 (59)
Assists per game 15.7 (36) 11.8 (256)
Turnover margin +1.3 (113) +2.1 (71)

Stat leaders

  UK Alabama
Points per game Archie Goodwin (15.0) Trevor Releford (16.2)
Rebounds per game Nerlens Noel (9.2) Moussa Gueye (4.3)
Field-goal percentage Willie Cauley-Stein (62.1) Nick Jacobs (49.5)
3-point percentage Kyle Wiltjer (41.8) Trevor Lacey (45.5)
Free-throw percentage Julius Mays (83.9) Trevor Releford (85.0)
Assists per game Archie Goodwin (3.4) Trevor Lacey (3.6)
Blocks per game Nerlens Noel (4.1) Moussa Gueye (1.2)
Steals per game Nerlens Noel (2.6) Trevor Releford (1.8)