|Marshall Henderson got all the hype, but it was Nerlens Noel -- the future top-five pick -- who delivered. (AP)|
Nerlens Noel was not.
Kentucky's freshman big man showed why some (myself included) have long regarded him on par with Anthony Davis for his shot-blocking abilities. He sent five Rebels shots back in the closing minutes, all while playing with four fouls. Noel did something that Davis never did a year ago. He swatted 12 shots in the 87-74 victory -- and now, though 20 games, has one more block than A.D. had at the same juncture. Davis' season high in blocks in Lexington was eight, which he did on two occasions.
Henderson finished just 5-of-19 from the field and 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. He's just not quite as entertaining when he's missing contested shots as when he's making them -- and drilling game-winners. Henderson had his moments, but it was actually teammate LaDarius White who kept the Rebels in the game after Kentucky pulled away in the second half. Henderson was actually difficult to watch for much of the contest, forcing poor shots and failing to move the ball to wide-open teammates.
This night belonged to Nerlens and the Wildcats -- who, believe it or not, needed this victory more than an Ole Miss team that entered the evening as the ranked ballclub. This was the first victory by UK over a team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. The Wildcats needed this one desperately for the resume because opportunities in the SEC aren't exactly aplenty these days. John Calipari's team will have a pair of opportunities -- at Florida and one at home against Missouri. The first of those matchups will comes against the Gators on Feb. 12.
This was the first time in a while that Kentucky looked like an NCAA tournament team. Maybe even all season.
Noel showed he's arguably the most dominant interior defender in the nation, Kyle Wiltjer was making shots (and more than just 3's), Alex Poythress was effective and playing with intensity -- and Archie Goodwin displayed improved decision-making. When all this happens, Ryan Harrow doesn't have to be anything more than a solid point guard who limits his turnovers (he had only two against Ole Miss). That's exactly what he was on Tuesday night.
Kentucky played without Willie Cauley-Stein, the team's other talented freshman big man who remains out with a knee injury. The issue for Calipari has been attempting to play both of the long and athletic shot-blocking big men at the same time. It has rarely worked. Both often leave their feet to challenge shots, and that ultimately leaves the defense vulnerable. The other issue is they aren't effective scorers with their backs to the basket.
Noel finished with just two points -- both from the foul line. However, as was the case in the first half of the national title game last April when Davis was held scoreless, he was the most important player on the floor. He never became passive when the game was on the line despite being on the verge of fouling out. He kept playing with a sense of purpose -- and it paid off with Kentucky's most impressive victory of the season.
Kentucky's resume entering the contest was not that of an NCAA tournament team. However, the 'Cats silenced Henderson and left Oxford with a victory that likely put them back on the right side of the bubble.