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February 1, 2013Be careful. Be cautious.
Nerlens Noel's coach was saying things like that on Tuesday night as the Kentucky basketball team came down the stretch at Ole Miss. Noel had four fouls. John Calipari needed him to be aware, wanted him to be discreet in his post defense.
That's not really Noel's style.
"Cal told me to stay cautious and they needed me on the court," Noel said Friday, three days after his school-record 12-blocked-shot game in a win against the Rebels. "But I knew I wasn't going to be as effective if I was just laying back and just letting them score. We wanted to win the game, and I felt like that was a game we really needed to win at that time of the season. It was my choice to just really get more aggressive but also playing smart at the same time."
Increasingly, that's the way Noel has played of late.
He'll try to keep it up on Saturday, when the Wildcats (14-6, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) get a second shot at Texas A&M (13-7, 3-4), a team that beat them Jan. 12 at Rupp Arena.
Noel probably will be a key if the Cats want to avoid the season sweep.
Calipari on Friday singled him out as his most competitive player, the one with the strongest will to win. It's that attitude, Calipari said, that led him to leave Noel on the court to block six shots against Ole Miss after picking up his fourth foul.
"But 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 have to have him out there or you can't win," Calipari said. "Now, when we get to the point where we have - like we did a year ago - three or four guys with a will to win, that's when you win all the games. Believe me when I tell you, we're not there right now."
But Noel is right where he needs to be at the defensive end.
In his past six games, Noel has blocked 46 shots. He has 95 blocked shots this season, the most in a single season by any UK player other than Anthony Davis. Through 20 games, Noel is two blocks ahead of Davis' pace in 2011-12, when he set an NCAA Division I freshman record with 186 blocks.
"I don't keep track, but some people tell me what the numbers are through (a number of) games or something," Noel said. "That's something I do want to break, but that's not really the focus of the season."
The focus, Noel said, is helping Kentucky continue to improve so that the Wildcats "can meet our expectations, if not exceed them."
That starts with winning at Texas A&M in UK's first-ever game in College Station, Texas. The Aggies pulled off a stunner last month in Rupp Arena thanks to 40 points from Elston Turner, and Noel said it's critical that Kentucky builds on the momentum in generated in beating No. 16 Ole Miss this week.
"We're definitely a different team than when we played (Texas A&M) last," Noel said. "Certain players have stepped it up, just really started doing what they need to do for this team and playing a big role. We've changed a lot since then, and it's going to be big for us to get this win and keep this thing going the way we want it to so we can really, really completely turn that corner and just really make our own identity for who we want to be and how far we want to go."
Noel has found his identity.
Though he remains limited offensively - he scored two points at Ole Miss, missing his only field-goal attempt and shooting 2-for-8 from the free-throw line - Noel has become Kentucky's most important player not only because of his shot-blocking, but his all-around defensive presence.
Noel has put in extra practice time with Calipari to hone his timing, and he's taken off as a shot-blocker as he's learned to leap at the last possible moment to bat away an opponent's attempt.
He blocked multiple shots right at the rim against the Rebels, including two dunks.
"At the beginning of the season, I had a tendency to leave my feet, being too anxious to block shots," Noel said. "And that's when I was coming up with maybe only two, three, four blocks a game."
In SEC play, he's averaging seven. That means he's turning away three more shots per game than he makes. Noel's averaging 10 points a game in conference play.
"A lot of people think it's about scoring, but every team is always going to have its given scorers, two or three guys that are always going to get the majority of the buckets," Noel said. "Defense is something that's undervalued on some teams. It can change the whole game in significant ways."
Noel's understanding of defense - and, more importantly, his knack for swatting shots - draws constant comparisons to Davis. And he still has his sights set on a record he announced he was coming for soon after he committed to Kentucky.
Davis got 40 games in leading his team to last season's NCAA title.
Noel hopes he gets a chance to play as many.
"It's about the team," Noel said. "I want the team to go as far as we can for the team, not just for a record that I want to break. If the team goes far, it's for the team to win a championship, and that's the main goal."