OXFORD, Miss. — Nerlens Noel’s defensive performance Tuesday night in Kentucky’s 87-74 win over Ole Miss was one for the record books, if not for the ages.
Noel’s 12 blocked shots crushed the previous school record of nine held by Andre Riddick (1993) and Sam Bowie (1981). Even UK’s single-season record holder, Anthony Davis, never got more than eight.
The performance was so good that Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway called Noel “the best shot blocker to ever play the game.”
Those are bold words, but they are a strong indication of how great Noel has been recently.
For perspective, here are some numbers that help tell the story of Noel’s defensive dominance:
- Noel has 95 blocks in 20 games this season, two ahead of where Davis was through 20
- As of Tuesday night’s games, 293 teams in Division I have fewer total blocks than Noel does
- His 95 blocks are now No. 1 in the nation, two more than St. John’s Chris Obekpa; Noel’s 4.8 average also leads the country
- Noel is already in second place among Kentucky’s single-season blocked shot leaders with at least 13 games to go (12 regular-season games and one Southeastern Conference Tournament game)
- Ole Miss’ Reginald Buckner is second in the SEC this year with 54 block; Noel has nearly matched that with 46 blocks in his last six games
- Tuesday’s 12-block performance is tied for the third most ever by an SEC player and the second most in an SEC league game
- There have only been 18 other performances in Division I since blocks became an official stat in 1985-86 where a player has blocked more than Noel’s 12 shots (Alabama A&M’s Mickell Gladness holds the all-time NCAA record for blocks in a single game with 16, accomplishing the feat on Feb. 24, 2007 against Texas Southern)
- Only four freshmen have ever blocked more than 12 shots in a game
- In 20 games this year, Noel has six games of seven blocks or more; in 40 games last season, Davis only had eight games of seven blocks or more
The most impressive part of Noel’s performance Tuesday night was that he picked up six of the blocks when he had four fouls and Ole Miss had gotten back into the game.
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said his team got the ball on the block where they wanted it, but Noel “would not allow the ball to go into the basket.”
“He was the difference in the game,” Kennedy said. “I think we all agree with that.”
The fact that Noel made such a big difference while scoring just two points and taking one shot reminds one of Davis’ performance in the 2012 national championship. Davis scored just six points that game, but he blocked six shots and altered nearly a dozen others.
Noel played a similar game Tuesday.
“Incredible defensive performance,” Kennedy said.
Slow means efficient
At the pace Kentucky was scoring early in the second half Tuesday – UK had 34 points in the first 8:29 of play after halftime – it’s hard to believe John Calipari’s game plan was actually to slow the tempo down and grind out a win.
“We played slower today than we’ve played all year, which was what we wanted to do, and we scored more points,” Coach Cal said.
It wasn’t the most efficient offensive performance of the season, but it was the best offensive performance Ole Miss has allowed this season. UK’s 1.18 points per possession is the most the Rebels have surrendered this year.
“We were trying to grind it out with them a little bit and make some of the guys that maybe don’t want to guard (have to) guard people,” Calipari said.
When Ole Miss tried to go to a press in the second half, UK shredded it for easy layups and transition opportunities.
Kentucky opened the second half by making 13-of-18 field goals. In the 8:29 of play where the Cats scored 34 points, the Cats averaged exactly 2.0 points per possession.
If there’s such a thing as an overlooked 24-point performance, Archie Goodwin had one at Ole Miss.
With all of Tuesday night’s story lines – Noel’s record game, Kyle Wiltjer’s offensive explosion, foul trouble, blowing a big lead and notching a much-needed win – Goodwin’s 24 points went under the radar.
That isn’t to say Goodwin’s performance wasn’t great. As a matter of fact, it was pretty darn clutch.
The freshman guard, who has taken heat for his shot selection lately, hit 6-of-11 field goals, 12-of-14 foul shots, recorded six rebounds and dished out four assists.
“I thought Archie took good shots,” Calipari said. “He had a couple that he didn’t need to take, but he still – and he made his free throws.”
As dominant as Noel was defensively, UK may not have won Tuesday without Goodwin’s six points in the final 3:50.
In terms of his team’s NCAA Tournament profile, Coach Cal downplayed the importance of the win at Ole Miss, but there is no denying it bolstered the Cats’ résumé from a numbers standpoint.
With its first win over a team in the top 50 of the NCAA’s RPI, UK jumped to No. 44 in ESPN’s real-time RPI rankings. Entering the week, UK was No. 62 in the NCAA’s official RPI rankings.
After UK failed to follow up a great win at Auburn with a victory at Alabama, however, Calipari is probably right in cautioning fans from categorizing Tuesday’s performance as turning a corner.
“It’s good, but look, our thing is way out ahead of us still,” Coach Cal said. “We’ve got a ways to go.”
Less was more Tuesday
UK, despite a pretty good rebounding margin this year, has had a tendency to give up chunks of offensive rebounds from time to time. Tuesday was one of those cases as the Cats gave up 26 offensive rebounds.
Second-chance opportunities, of course, lead to more shots, and Ole Miss got a boatload more shots than Kentucky did Tuesday — 29 of them, as a matter of fact.
How in the world did the Cats manage to win a game with 29 fewer field-goal attempts?
Ah, that’s right, that Noel feller.