The unedited version of my UK-Lafayette column:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have been the greatest center in the history of basketball, but he never dove on the floor for a loose ball.
Neither did Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal. Neither does Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan. Not very often anyway.
After all, from where they are, it’s a long way down there.
Great centers are usually scorers or shot blockers. They are not ones who are dedicated to the art of giving up some skin in pursuit of a loose ball.
“The energy that Nerlens plays with,” said John Calipari after his team’s 101-49 win over Lafayette on Friday night at Rupp Arena, “think if I could get all my guys to play with that kind of energy, what we would become as team.”
The coach isn’t kidding. And this isn’t a scrappy 6-foot guard we’re talking about. Or a 6-foot-5 swingman, a la a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
This is a 6-10, 228-pound freshman center from Tifton, Massachusetts who doesn’t mind diving for a loose ball or two, or three, or four.
His stat line in UK’s 52-point win: 28 minutes, 15 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals.
That’s the second straight game in which Noel has recorded four steals. He had four steals in Tuesday night’s loss to Duke in Atlanta. He had four more Friday as UK ended up with 15 steals, most in the Calipari Era.
Consider that Kentucky’s Anthony Davis was the Most Outstanding Player in last year’s year NCAA Tournament and the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Davis had one game in which he made four steals all of last season. (Alabama, January 21.)
Noel arrived on campus with the reputation as a primo shot blocker, the glamour guy of the defensive set. No one told us he was a grit guy, too, one with the quickness and the will to come up with the steal.
“I’ve always been on the floor,” said Noel. “It’s the only way you’re going to get that ball.”
Yet who would have thought that through three games of this young season, Noel would have more steals (10) than blocked shots (seven).
“It’s different shot-blocking at this level,” Noel said. “I’m still getting used to it a little bit. But steals is steals. Just got to get that ball really.”
Calipari wants Alex Poythress to get that ball, too, and dunk it. The freshman scored 22 points, yet Calipari again said the Nashville native is not giving his all. Not all of the time.
“I want a better version of Alex,” said the coach.
Kyle Wiltjer scored 23 points, yet Calipari said the sophomore went through a stretch where he wasn’t hustling enough. Archie Goodwin scored 13 points, yet Calipari pointed out to him that at the half Jarrod Polson had two rebounds while Goodwin had zero.
“You jump above the square,” Calipari said he told Goodwin. “Jarrod has two rebounds and you have none. Why is that?”
Calipari wants those guys to play with the motor of that Noel guy.
“What do I think of it?” said Noel when asked about Calipari’s comments. “I think it’s pretty good. I’ve got to make sure I stay up with that energy, just really get the guys going. Whether they got to go through me to really get their energy level up, then that’s how it could be. I mean just anything to help my team.”
Have you always been a high-energy guy?
“I’ve always been a relatively high-energy (guy),” said Noel. “But since I’m at a high level, I think I’ve just got to bring it every night, that energy. Just always being active for my team, making opportunities for the fast break, get steals on the floor, throwing it out so my teammates can get going.”
He has his coach going.
“He was coming to every huddle and I was telling the team, give him a hand,” said Calipari.
Better yet, give him some skin.