By LARRY VAUGHT
From the day he arrived on campus in August, Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel has continued to work on basically the same things.
“Just continuing to do what I do now. Working on my skill set 15 feet in and staying in the weight room to get stronger and put on good weight.,” said Noel. “Those are the things it will take for me to help this team all I can.”
Noel was the nation’s top-ranked player in the 2012 recruiting class. He arrived on campus about two months after UK’s other freshmen — Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein — to finish necessary work to graduate after reclassifying from the 2013 recruiting year to 2012.
He says assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Orlando Antigua have not let him even think about not pushing himself.
“They really push you to get to where you want to be. They are great, and people you can look up to and talk to whenever you want to speak about something. I appreciate them,” Noel said.
Same with his teammates.
“We all had prior relationships before coming here, and I always had a good vibe since I got here that we have a close-knit group. We have all come a long way and have been our own brother’s keeper,” Noel said.
He was expecting Kentucky fans to be a bit zany, but admits he did underestimate the fans.
“A lot more (fan interest) than what I have experienced in the past. It is special to be here. It is a big opportunity, but you have to seize it and bring it every day,” Noel said. “Some fans are crazy, but mainly they just have a love for the game. Just watching us play is special for them, and you have to love that.”
Noel likes the daily competition with Cauley-Stein, who outplayed him in last week’s Blue-White Game when Noel injured his back early in the scrimmage.
“Willie has come a long way with himself, and I think that will be a great duo. Not too many shots would get up in the paint. The season should be real fun. Whatever coach Cal (Calipari) decides to do, and whoever he decides to put in, we will just go out there and try to ball,” Noel said.
Cauley-Stein is just as glad to be pushed by Noel — one reason he had no problem when Noel signed with the Cats about six months after he had picked the Cats.
“A lot of my friends from back home asked me if I was worried that I wouldn’t get as much playing time. Honestly, that didn’t go through my head,” Cauley-Stein said. “You care to some sense, but if we are winning, I don’t care. If you win, you win, and it doesn’t matter how many minutes you get. It didn’t really bother me that much. It was kind of more like a challenge. I was really low key and nobody really knew about me. Going with the number one recruit in the country and having to play against him every day builds your confidence.”
Noel doesn’t want to think or act like the top-ranked recruit. Instead, his focus is on a national title, not going pro. Sounds similar to the same things Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said last year before going one-two in the draft.
“Winning a title is something I have definitely dreamed about. Just being at the college level and growing up watching this game and having a passion for it, I really want to win a title more than anything,” Noel said. “Other than that, I am mainly focused on getting better and staying on the books. This is just a regular school where you are going to do regular things and where you come to get better every day. The NBA is not something you worry about.”