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By LARRY VAUGHT
The numbers just keep adding up for Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel. He became the fourth Kentucky freshman to earn Southeastern Conference freshman of the week after averaging 11 points, nine rebounds, 6.5 blocks and two steals in wins last week against Tennessee and Auburn.
Noel is averaging 10.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.1 blocked shots per game going into tonight’s game at Alabama. He has had at least six rebounds in every game this season and over the last three games has blocked 20 shots, including a career-high seven Saturday at Auburn.
His 69 blocked shots have him almost on the per game pace that Anthony Davis had last year when he blocked a school-record 186 shots in 40 games.
Davis averaged 4.5 blocks per game in UK’s first 17 games last year while Noel is averaging 4.1 in 17 games this season — the fourth best mark in the nation this season. Noel is already fifth on UK’s freshman single-season block list with 69 and needs just 11 more to move past Jamal Magloire into second place. He needs just one more block to move into UK’s single-season top 10 blocked shot list.
But he’s also on a near record pace in steals. He has 44, the seventh best total of any UK freshman and only 43 behind the record 87 steals Rajon Rondo had in 2004-05. John Wall is second with 66 steals during the 2009-10 season. However, he already has five more steals than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had last year and is only 10 behind the team-leading total Davis had for last year’s national championship team.
Kentucky coach John Calipari cites one particular reason for Noel’s uncanny ability to make steals. “He’s got a quick twitch, I will tell you that, and he’s long. He’s doing some good stuff,” Calipari said.
He’s the only player in the country to rank among the top3 0 nationally in rebounds, blocks and steals.
Noel says it is easy to explain how his game has improved even since the season started.
“Defensively I am a lot better. Coach Cal has made sure I have stayed busy defensively and staying on my feet, which has helped me. I am not going after every ball like I was earlier in the season and I am blocking the higher shots. Offensively, everything on the block, just working on my touches, and everything like that,” Noel said.
Earlier this season Noel often got caught leaving his feet to early to block shots and got outmaneuvered by opponents.
“Coming in you want to block everything there is to block and I was very anxious at the beginning of the season. We have worked on it and I have come to be more relaxed on defense and anticipate things better,” Noel said. “It is because it is a different level from high school in how you can still leave your feet and block that shot. I think I have come a long way and I have still have progress to make.”
He could find that patience tested by Alabama’s quick four-guard lineup.
“We have been doing that for quite some time this season. I feel comfortable guarding 2, 3, and 4, especially having Alex (Poythress) as a forward starter now helps us a little bit, even though Willie (Cauley-Stein) isn’t here,” Noel said. “Willie did a great job guarding some smaller players himself. Even with Alex in the smaller lineup, I think it will still work to our advantage.”
Calipari said Noel got more out of the individual workouts his players did during the semester break than anyone.
“Some other guys, in a month, their exertion level heart rates never really moved, which tells you as soon as they hit that wall, they kept stopping, for a month. Nerlens, on the other hand, started in the same spot and just kept moving,” Calipari said.