Nerlens Noel has been touted as a better high school shot-blocker than Anthony Davis, who led the nation in blocked shots as a freshman on Kentucky’s national championship team.
However, the 6-foot-11 Noel has already scored his first points with Kentucky fans after he announced Wednedsay night on ESPNU that he would sign with the Wildcats.
That came about an hour after Shabazz Muhammad, the No. 2 player in the 2012 recruiting class behind Noel, picked UCLA over Kentucky and Duke. By then, rumors were flying that Noel, who had seemed to be leaning toward UK for weeks, was going to pick Georgetown over Syracuse and Kentucky.
But Noel wasted little time on the national college signing day show by saying that even though he was comfortable with all three schools, he wanted to play for Kentucky. He said his mother played a role in his decision, too.
“She liked Kentucky and coach (John Calipari). I liked what he did with Anthony Davis,” Noel said on the broadcast. “She thought it was the best fit for me, and I did, too.”
Noel, who is in Charlotte, N.C., to play in Saturday’s Jordan Brand Classic, called it “a great relief” to get his decision made.
ESPN national recruiting director Paul Biancardi said Noel “will take over where Anthony Davis left off” and immediately elevated Kentucky to No. 1 in the national recruiting rankings for the fourth straight year. He even joked that Calipari would be able to get some “sleep now” after adding a key piece to his team.
“Now they have a chance to make another Final Four run,” Biancardi said.
Remember, it was last week that Biancardi said that out of Muhammad, Noel and Anthony Bennett, the nation’s top-ranked power forward, that he would be surprised if Calipari “struck out,” and that he viewed Noel as the key recruit of the three because of his ability to protect the basket.
Even before Muhammad and Noel, the nation’s Nos. 1- and 2-ranked recruits, announced their decisions, Calipari was making it clear that the Wildcats were not going to cancel next season no matter what both decided.
“We got Kyle (Wiltjer) coming back. Ryan Harrow has been sitting out the year. We have (signees) Archie (Goodwin), Alex (Poythress) and Willie (Cauley). They are all terrific players,” Calipari said on ESPNU. “We have the makings of another great team.”
Great team might have been a stretch if Kentucky had lost both Muhammad, a prolific scorer, and Noel, a prolific shot blocker. With Noel, that is not a stretch because Poythress and Goodwin are extraordinary five-star players and Cauley is a 7-footer — and a high school football wide receiver — who should blossom under Calipari and his staff much as Josh Harrellson did.
Calipari also cautioned that it was not a done deal yet that freshmen Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb would all leave for the NBA.
“I don’t know if all five underclassmen will leave, but if you are a betting man they probably will,” Calipari said.
He’s right. At least four will be first-round picks, and Lamb will be a mid-second-round pick at worst. They’ve got their national title, and none likely can raise their draft stock by staying, so it’s safe to assume they will be gone.
Muhammad admitted that both Goodwin and Poythress, who are also playing in the Jordan Brand Classic, tried to sway him to join them at Kentucky. Instead, he wanted to try to resurrect a sagging UCLA program rather than tackle the difficulty of following the Wildcats’ 38-2 national championship season.
“This program is not for everybody,” Calipari said before Muhammad’s announcement — and after he obviously knew that Muhammad was not coming to Kentucky. “Not every kid wants to walk into this and understands every game is somebody’s Super Bowl.
“Following up what that group of freshmen did is not for everybody. I am hoping the result is that we have six guys (including Darius Miller) picked in the first round (of the NBA draft). But it’s not easy. It’s very difficult.”
It is. But Noel wasn’t afraid to try and become the next Davis just as Brandon Knight wasn’t afraid to follow John Wall two years ago or Teague afraid to follow Knight this season.
“You don’t have to come with us and leave after a year,” Calipari said. “You can be with us four years like Darius. This has just happened. But we have five (drafted) in the first round two years ago, four drafted last year. I would love it if we had six drafted in the first round this year.”
That record is why there was no way both Noel and Muhammad were going to look elsewhere to play. Nothing against Syracuse or Georgetown, but what is their recent NCAA tournament success and how many first-round picks have they turned out?
Of course, UCLA has been in disarray, but the one thing Muhammad will get there that he would not have gotten at Kentucky is a lot more shots. Calipari is all about team-first during the season, and Muhammad certainly doesn’t seem quite as team-oriented as Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague and Wiltjer — or even Lamb and Jones.
“There are guys you look at and say you would enjoy coaching. Whatever they decide, I can live with it,” Calipari said before the announcements. “I do not take it personal. By not picking your school, there is a reason. To come with us, you have got to be all in. If not, you are better going somewhere else.”
As for Noel, he went all in and raised expectations to the point that I would wager many Kentucky fans are already ready to buy tickets for the 2013 Final Four in Cat-lanta.
Vaught's Views: Noel's commitment raises expectations for another Kentucky title
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