His team had just won by 52 points – that’s “five-two” – by hitting 64.5 percent of its shots in both the first and second halves. His guys were 11-of-19 from behind the arc; a pedestrian 10-of-16 from the free throw line, but still, they had turned it over just 10 times.
And all John Calipari wanted to do was talk defense.
Kentucky dispatched Lafayette, 101-49 Friday night, holding the Leopards to just 40.4 percent shooting. The Wildcats forced 28 turnovers, the most by an enemy team in Rupp Arena since 2004. But, not surprisingly, Calipari wasn’t even close to being satisfied.
Not enough effort from enough players for enough minutes, he said. The UK coach estimated that his ballclub played a total of about six minutes of D. At its best, last year’s national championship team, he said, played 35-38 minutes of concentrated defense. But of course, it worked up to that.
“We sustained (defense) for the first time this year about six straight trips,” he said. “Wow. Now could we ever get to where we could do that for 20 straight minutes? Or 30, or last year like it took us how long to get to that 35, 40 minute mark? Right now we're at six minutes. That's where we are. We're young.”
They are, indeed, but one of the youngest is Nerlens Noel, who not only ran the court all night but threw himself on it. Noel likely led the team in floor burns Friday, and his coach noticed. It’s hard not to, when your 6-foot-11 (closer to 7-3 when you factor in the hair) center is diving for loose balls as his teammates watch.
“He was coming into every huddle; I was telling the team, ‘Give him a hand. The guy's diving on the floor, playing with energy. Would the rest of you please look at him and try to do what he's doing, or do you think (you’ll) just let him do that and you're not going to do it?’ “ Calipari said.
Noel doesn’t mind doing the dirty work. “I’ll do anything to help my team,” he said. The floor is nothing new to him. “I've always been on the floor. It's the only way you are going to get that ball.”
It takes a fearless form of dedication to develop an affinity for loose balls, and the willingness to go after them nose-first. It’s a trait not often seen in a seven-footer, but Noel says he’s been doing it as long as he can remember.
“I have always been a relatively high-energy guy, but now since I'm at a higher level I have to bring it every night,” he said following his 15-point, seven-rebound performance, which included four assists and four steals in just 28 minutes. “I just always have to be active for my team, make opportunities for the fast break and getting steals on the floor. I'm just doing it for my team to get going.”
And his teammates have noticed. In fact, fellow freshman Alex Poythress is looking forward to the day people (most specifically, his coach) talk about him the same way.
“Hopefully I will be like Nerlens,” Poythress said. “He is a character but hopefully I can have his energy out there.”
That’s exactly what Calipari wants for him. “I'm all over him,” the coach said, “because I want him to be the best version of him. Not just play good. You're better than this. You can do more than this. Why won't you? It's hard. I know it's hard. But you've got to get in better shape. You've got to force yourself mentally to do these things.”
Noel, for one, believes in his teammate. “I think it’ll definitely come through” for Poythress, he told reporters. “And when it does, other teams ain’t gonna like it.”
One seat over, Poythress was telling the media that he understands the message from Calipari, decibel level aside. “He expects more out of me,” Poythress said. “He sees more in me. So I think that’s a great compliment.
“He pushes individual buttons,” he told the Courier-Journal. “He just sees more in you, so he’s going to pull it out. He’s so great at doing that.”
One of those might be the embarrassment button – Calipari is not above pushing that one when it comes getting his team to play hard. He did it again Friday.
“I told Nerlens, just keep doing it, and they'll get it,” Calipari said. “Because it becomes embarrassing when he's diving and you're jogging or you're standing straight up and get beat on the back door, and this kid's diving on the floor.”
He saw it briefly tonight, the team he hopes will present itself by tournament time in March. And the key is rebounding and defense – the tough stuff. He’s getting it from one guy. Imagine if he got it from all of them, all the time.
“The thing I'm telling our guys, the energy that Nerlens plays with, if I can get all my guys playing with that kind of energy, think about what we'd become as a team,” Calipari said. “Now we're aware of the vision I have with us.”
It’s a vision that just might include another NCAA championship trophy, to match the one he delivered last season. It’ll take a lot more floor burns to make it happen. Nerlens Noel is willing to lead. It’s time for his teammates to follow.
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