Nerlens Noel blocks Murphy Holloway's dunk attempt (USA Today Sports Images)Even though Anthony Davis won a national championship, swept every major player of the year award and made the U.S. Olympic team in his lone season at Kentucky, last year's No. 1 pick did not accomplish what his heir apparent did Tuesday night.
Davis never reached double figures in blocked shots in one game.
Nerlens Noel did that in Kentucky's biggest game of the season, stealing the spotlight on a night that was supposed to provide validation for Ole Miss and a springboard to stardom for its star guard Marshall Henderson. Noel set a school record with 12 blocks and altered countless more, propelling Kentucky to a badly needed 87-74 victory over the 16th-ranked Rebels.
As a result of the upset, Kentucky strengthened its bid to avoid going from a national title to the NIT. The Wildcats had yet to beat a single RPI top 50 opponent prior to Tuesday night, but winning in Oxford provides them a signature win over an Ole Miss team that had won nine straight and was off to a 6-0 start in SEC play.
There were many heroes for Kentucky.
Kyle Wiltjer scored a career-high 26 points, all in the opening 25 minutes of the game, to help the Wildcats get off to a good start. Ryan Harrow sank a key 3-pointer with four minutes remaining to snap a 16-0 Ole Miss run that cut Kentucky's lead to one. And Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin took turns chasing Henderson around screens, surrendering 21 points to the SEC's leading scorer but on 5 of 19 shooting from the field.
Still, the biggest key was Noel's ability to protect the rim.
Noel took only one shot, but he singlehandedly turned Ole Miss into a jump shooting team by altering so many shots in the paint. Even more impressive, five of his 12 blocks came after he picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half, including one on a Murphy Holloway dunk attempt that was especially memorable.
That block and one other followed Harrow's key 3-pointer and helped spark a game-sealing 14-2 Kentucky run. Noel now has six straight games with six blocks or more and 93 blocks in 20 games, the same number Davis had at the same point last season.
Throughout the season, John Calipari has been reluctant to entertain comparisons between Noel and Davis because he feared placing unfair expectations on his freshman center.
In some ways, that's fair. Noel isn't as far along offensively as Davis was by now last year. But defensively, Noel isn't far behind Davis if at all, and that's great news for a Kentucky team hoping use this win as a springboard for six-week NCAA tournament push.