COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Nerlens Noel can get higher in the air than you can, and no matter what else happens in your game, this is always a reality for which you have to account.
It manifests itself in a hundred ways. Sometimes he gets way up there and dunks on you, or throws your shot into the stands. Those are the obvious times. But there are others. A rebound he snatches over your head. A shot you try to float a little higher that comes up short. The shots you don’t take.
It’s not that Noel made a play every trip down the floor in Kentucky’s 72-68 overtime win at Texas A&M (13-8, 3-5 SEC) Saturday, and it’s not like getting 41 minutes and 19 points out of senior guard Julius Mays didn’t make a difference, but if you want to know why Kentucky (15-6, 6-2) won and Texas A&M lost, it’s because Kentucky has a guy who looks like he could gently place a marble on the top of the backboard, and Texas A&M does not.
“Nerlens was a beast,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Often people say these are things that don’t show up in the stat sheet, but in Noel’s case, quite a lot of his advantage in size and ability manifested it in black and white Saturday. He had 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting and had 14 rebounds. He didn’t block 12 shots the way he did against Ole Miss earlier in the week, but he was a force that, like the wind, you knew was there even if you couldn’t see it.
The Aggies said all the blocked shots were on their mind.
“You’re more aware of him,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “He still affected the game.”
This was a close game because, if you could remove the impact of a guy who can paint the sky with his flattop, Texas A&M and Kentucky were about the same. Elston Turner scored 21 to lead Texas A&M, bouncing in a long jumper to send the game to overtime. Ray Turner had 12 points and 11 rebounds, which Kennedy said gave the Aggies a chance. After Noel and Mays, Kyle Wiltjer (10 points) was the only Wildcat to reach double figures in scoring.
“We’re not that skilled,” Calipari said.
But even when the Wildcats aren’t ranked, they inspire opponents. Saturday in Reed Arena was loud and spirited and when Alex Caruso got a steal and a breakaway dunk to bring what once was a 13-point Wildcats lead down to two with 12:55 to play, we had a real Man vs. His Environment drama going on here. Man being Kentucky.
“We survived,” Calipari said.
A little about Caruso, though. He came off the bench and would have gotten the award for Inspirational Player of the Day, if such a thing existed. He spent all four of his first-half minutes pestering the Wildcats and rallying the crowd with the kind of annoying little moments of hustle that frustrate opponents who don’t think they should have to play an A-game to beat you.
In a single sequence, Caruso was accidentally tripped by a Wildcat, only to get up, say something to an official and then drive for an assist. On the other end, he tied up Noel on a rebound attempt, then on the same possession committed a foul that probably saved a dunk.
“He brings energy and scores off his defense,” Kennedy said. “Him getting in foul trouble hurt us.”
It was 11-9 when Caruso got his second foul, and slowly the Wildcats took control. It was a lot of Nerlens.
Noel stands in a slight crouch in the lane, like he’s trying to hide in there, which is a bit like Kate Upton wearing a baseball cap and thinking she can just blend in. He’s the only thing your eye wants to watch. And then when something happens in his area, he springs into the air. It happens faster than you expect it to.
Kourtney Roberson looked downright confused on one play. He had good position, a ball went up, he gathered for the rebound and . . . Noel just flew up there and snatched it away. Roberson fell to the floor. On the other end, Noel flushed a tip-dunk home over Elston Turner, who also hit the deck. It was 26-17 Kentucky.
It all looked so easy. How could Texas A&M ever deal with this?
Well, there is a flaw. Noel has little offensive game. Sometimes the Wildcats throw it in to him, and sometimes they don’t. It’s not a big part of what they do, because getting higher up than everybody else isn’t so useful when you aren’t close enough to touch the basket. So Noel is largely at the mercy of the way the ball bounces.
“We don’t throw it to him enough,” Calipari said.
This being the case, Kentucky doesn’t have much in the way of reliable offense. The Wildcats want to spread you out and drive you, but if you want to play off and see if they can make a bunch of jump shots, you stand a good chance of turning things into a bit of a rock fight.
“Our gameplan was to make them shoot 3s and hope they missed,” Kennedy said.
Caruso’s second dunk — a driving one-handed with 11:30 left — made it 46-42 and was a good signal that A&M was starting to feel pretty good about itself.
The Aggies forced overtime, thanks in part to 19 Kentucky turnovers, but Noel hit a jump hook on the first place of overtime and Texas A&M never took the lead.
“We’re winning,” Calipari said. “We’re figuring out how to win.”
But Noel and the Wildcats don’t have it all figured out just yet. By the time they do, Calipari is hoping they’re all still together.
“Hopefully it’s gonna take a couple years,” Calipari said. “Not just one.”