By LARRY VAUGHT
Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy says it is “mind-boggling” to him that Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel is averaging over six blocks per game during Southeastern Conference play.
“Incredible, incredible talent at the basket. He’s averaging over six blocks a game in league play and that is mind-boggling,” said Kennedy Monday. “Obviously, last year they had a very, very special player at the basket in Anthony Davis. Anthony Davis was probably a little bit bigger, and I’m not sure that he was the presence that Noel is at the basket defensively. He completely changes the game, plays with a lot of confidence, and you can see, a lot like Davis last year, as the season is getting further along, the kid is growing leaps and bounds offensively as well.”
Noel blocked a career-high eight shots at Alabama and then came back with six blocks against LSU in games last week. He has 83 for the season, the second most in any season at UK. He averaged nine points, 10.5 rebounds and seven blocks last week to earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors for the second straight time — the first SEC player to earn multiple conference honors this year.
He has scored in double figures in five of UK’s six SEC games and had 13 rebounds at Alabama. He has 34 blocks in the last five games and has shot 62.9 percent from the field.
LSU coach Johnny Jones thought Noel took the ball at the basket well against his team in the first half Saturday “and made some big plays” against us.
“I thought he did a great job setting the tone defensively,” Jones said. “Some shots he didn’t block, but he altered others and did not allow good looks (at the basket). Those were point blank opportunities. The intimidation factor he possesses and his reputation really help him. He scored the ball around the rim and set the tone for their team.
“His reputation for blocking shots is an intimidating factor. He is very aggressive in terms of his shot blocking ability, but that let us drive some lanes and catch him away from the basket. But when he is in the game, you recognize and realize it and are looking for him. That is a big plus for them.”
Ole Miss will hope to counter Noel’s presence with fifth-year senior Murphy Holloway and senior Reginald Buckner.
“We’ve been through this. These guys have played from DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kentucky just seems to always have a guy in there that’s very, very good. Nerlens Noel defensively is as good as there is in college basketball,” Kennedy said. “Our guys every day in practice probably go against the second-best shot blocker in the SEC in Reginald Buckner, so we get accustomed to playing how we play. Our guys I know will excited about the challenge that Noel brings.”
Holloway averages 14.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. He is second on Ole Miss’ career rebounding list with 941 and needs only five boards against Kentucky to become the all-time leader. Holloway is the SEC active career leader in rebounds and double-doubles (34), ranks second in steals and third in points. He leads conference and ranks 13th in the nation in rebounding per game this year.
Buckner averages 9.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. Buckner is second to Holloway among active SEC players with 14 career double-doubles and is second in the conference behind Holloway’s nine this year with six double-doubles. The duo’s combined 1,700 career rebounds is the best among active players in the nation and 48 career double-doubles ranks first among active players in the SEC and third in the nation. Ole Miss is 8-1 this season when Holloway records a double-double and 5-1 this year when Buckner pulls off the feat.
Buckner and Holloway give Mississippi a huge experience advantage over Noel, freshmen Alex Poythress and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer.
“I’ve always told our guys that experience doesn’t help you unless you play experienced. If you’re making the same mistakes that first-year or second-year guys are, what’s the advantage of being a senior? And I think our guys have learned some things over the course of a hundred-plus games in an SEC uniform and as a result you hope that they’re more consistent,” Kennedy said. “If you look at the numbers that Reg and Murphy have been able to produce and the way in which they’ve done that, I think they are playing to their experience and that’s what’s helped us.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari says the Rebels’ experience is obvious — and a big reason they are 6-0 for the first time in SEC play.
“They’re older. They don’t seem to be rattled. I mean, a bunch of the games I’ve watched, even if the other team comes at them and gets leads, they don’t get rattled. And if they get you down, they try to keep you down,” Calipari said. “I’ve watched our game with them last year and they were good last year. We were really good. They were really good. We didn’t get away from them until one stretch in the second half.
“In that stretch, we went up, and the rest of the game — other than that four-minute stretch it was an even game last year. So they’re a veteran team, everybody’s back, got a couple additions that make them better. I think Andy’s doing a great job of coaching, really keeping them into here’s how we’ve got to play to win. And they’re doing it.”