Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will spend the upcoming season chronicling the three teams widely expected to be ranked 1-2-3 in the preseason polls: Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville. The regional rivals have a combined 15 national titles and 30 Final Four appearances, but never have they entered a season with a monopoly on the top spots in the rankings.
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Most mornings when Nerlens Noel leaves the Wildcat Coal Lodge – the brand-new basketball dorm located right next to the practice facility – there are people waiting for him.
Autograph seekers. Ten or 15 of them a day, he says.
It's not normal for packs of people to stake out the residence of an 18-year-old who has never scored a collegiate point, but this is Kentucky. Normal has never been part of the equation. And it's even more abnormal since Wildcats coach John Calipari changed the paradigm in college basketball.
In the new reality, freshmen are the stars. Sophomore year is for suckers.
The future is now, so you better get the signatures of the hot shots before they leave for the NBA next spring. The most urgent fan base in America suddenly has an even greater sense of urgency to smother its players in adoration.
"I knew what it was coming here," Noel said. "I came prepared."
Prepared for the adulation, perhaps. We'll see whether he's prepared for the comparisons.
Expectations for young Nerlens are higher than his flat-top 'fro, which skyscrapes several inches above his head and makes him appear even taller than his listed 6-foot-10. At a school that has seen eight freshmen go pro in three seasons, led by No. 1 picks John Wall in 2010 and Anthony Davis in 2012, Noel is Next.
The next No. 1 recruit in his class signed by Cal. The next Wildcat expected to be a No. 1 pick. And the next freshman expected to lead Kentucky to the Final Four – at least.
Since Noel signed with Kentucky last spring, he has been eagerly projected as Davis 2.0 – a shot-blocking, lob-dunking, game-altering, athletic phenomenon capable of being the best player in college basketball right away. Davis had the signature unibrow, Noel has the signature flat-top, and they both came here to dominate from Midnight Madness through March Madness. Cut-and-paste one brilliant big guy in where the other one was, right?
Not so fast, Calipari said Thursday at UK media day.
"I worry about it because he's not Anthony Davis," Calipari said. "Anthony Davis is a once in a 10 year [player]. [Nerlens] is just not. Anthony Davis was a skilled basketball player. Nerlens is a long, bouncy – way more bouncy than Anthony and longer, but he's not Anthony. He's not. And we shouldn't expect it now."
"Everybody's acting like he's Anthony, and he's going to come out and he's not going to be Anthony."
But it's too late for the coach to wrap his freshman class in bubble wrap. After the star center announces his college choice by showing the "UK" shaved into the back of his head on national TV, it's hard to get the circus horses back into the barn. With the hype comes the pressure.
Fair or not, they're all expected to be instant superstars now. That's the monster Calipari has built.
The first indication that Noel is not going to be Anthony is the fact that he's not yet eligible. The NCAA is reviewing his amateur status, after multiple red flags were raised during Noel's high-school career. Calipari said Thursday that Noel would play if Kentucky had a game the next day, but that's empty talk. There are no games until November, so we'll see what happens then.
"I'm not worried," Noel said when asked about his eligibility.
He sounded a little more concerned about the Davis comparisons than about his eligibility. Noel said he played pickup with Davis a few times over the summer, and Davis got the better of him. He knows there's a gulf between their games right now.
"I'm not looking to be anyone that I'm not," he said. "I know I'm my own person, my own player. So that's what I'm going to bring to the table."
He will bring a reputation for relentless shot-blocking – but even there, in his strongest suit, can he really be as good as Davis? All Davis did as a freshman was break every NCAA record for single-season blocks, conjuring up visions of Bill Russell from the 1950s and 60s.
The rest of the game needs more work. Noel averaged just 12.6 points per game as a senior in high school, and by all reports his skill level has a long way to go from a shooting standpoint. He also claimed just 7.2 rebounds per game, modest for a big man playing most of the time against much smaller competition.
In the Adidas Nations tournament in California in August, Noel's play against other elite collegians was panned by analysts and observers to the point that many Kentucky fans took to his defense without having seen him play. That's the way it is with Big Blue – they take care of their own, at least until they lose a game.
Davis wasn't part of many losses as a Wildcat – just two, in fact. That's another area where Noel will have a hard time matching up. As an even less-experienced team than last year's national champions, losses seem inevitable as Kentucky finds its way.
But early losses in college basketball are never fatal. When the usual flotilla of talent meshes with Calipari's team-building and coaching, expect a Final Four contender by the time the balling gets serious.
"I like what they'll look like in March in my mind," Calipari said. "Right now, that's the only thing I can live with. I have a vision of what they're going to be in March, and that's what I try to drive them to."
If the vision comes into focus, Kentucky will be fine. And Nerlens Noel will have to deal with even more autograph seekers as he steps toward the NBA draft lottery.
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