Freeze Frame: Capturing Nerlens Noel’s Defensive Impact Against Ole MissPosted by Brian Joyce on January 31st, 2013
Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.
Kentucky needed a signature win on its resume, and that’s exactly what it got when the Wildcats defeated the fighting Marshall Hendersons of Ole Miss in Oxford on Tuesday night. All the attention was on the Rebels’ Henderson, but it was a 6’11″ freshman without a single field goal in the game who had the largest impact on the outcome. Nerlens Noel blocked a school record 12 blocks (though one was actually blocked by Kyle Wiltjer but credited to Noel) on his way to one of the finest performances of his young career. Perhaps the most impressive statistic of all is that Noel blocked five of his 12 total blocks with less than six minutes to go in the second half while saddled with four fouls.
How was Noel so effective? Most players play with hesitation when so close to fouling out of the game, but he did not. He was an even bigger part of Kentucky’s defense down the stretch because the Rebels suspected his weakness in the middle and tried to exploit it. But man were they wrong. What Andy Kennedy’s squad did not anticipate was that Noel would not back off even with the risk of watching the end of a close game next to John Calipari on the bench. But how exactly did he not pick up his fifth foul? As aggressive as he was in attempting to swat the ball into the upper deck of the Tad Pad, he kept the angle of his body straight up and down to avoid any extra contact.
Note how Noel jumped straight up without making any contact with the shooter. He has an uncanny ability to make contact up top with the ball and nothing else. Despite the fact that Ole Miss drove toward him repeatedly in an attempt to draw his fifth foul, Noel finished the game on the floor. Another key to Noel’s shot-swatting party on defense is how quickly he bounces back from an initial jump. Noel’s “bounceability” led the great Mike Decourcy to compare his defensive game to that of Bill Russell. And here’s why:
Henderson went right at Noel to get the big man in the air, before he dumped the ball inside to an open Reginald Buckner. Noel has the quickness and athleticism to bite on the shot fake but still recover and jump again before Buckner has the chance to put the ball up.
Though Noel left his feet early and found himself out of position for what should have been an easy Ole Miss dunk, he recovered so quickly that he still made the block at the rim. His ability to take chances but still get back on the second jump enables him to gamble. However, Noel’s gambles can put UK in a precarious position at times. During the following play, Noel is the help defender in a situation where he left his man because Wiltjer, one of Kentucky’s slower defenders, was beaten to the basket. Noel helped out, but what happens when he jumps and misses?
Noel’s missed blocks result in situations where Kentucky leaves the paint wide open for Ole Miss to grab the offensive board. Buckner came down with an easy second chance here, and even Noel isn’t quick enough to recover on this one as he took it back up for an easy two. It’s worth pointing out that these rare instances hardly outweigh the impact Noel has on the Wildcats’ defense. He was credited with 12 blocks last night, but he altered countless others, not to mention making the Rebels’ offense adjust to his constant inside presence.
In a must-win situation for the Wildcats, a team desperate for a resume-building win on the road, the freshman came up huge defensively. Noel is a classic example of how much of an effect the defensive end can have on a game. The freshman center only finished with two free throws in the scoring column, but he didn’t need to tally a point on Tuesday night to still be the most valuable player in the game.