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Noel still embracing Kentucky craziness

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Nerlens Noel is a part of John Calipari's fourth top-ranked recruiting class in as many seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Nerlens Noel is a part of John Calipari's fourth top-ranked recruiting class in as many seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Nerlens Noel thought he knew what was in store for him.

A recruit doesn't choose Kentucky these days without being aware of all that comes with it, particularly a prospect as hyped as Noel. When announcing his decision to the world, Noel showed a willingness to embrace the craziness by unveiling his choice by having the interlocking UK logo shaved into the back of his signature flat top.

He then saw his followers on social media go up by thousands. He experienced the media blitz that comes with simply being associated with Kentucky. When he arrived on campus in August, he found out what it's like to be treated like a celebrity.

Noel may have had an idea what was on the horizon when he committed to play for John Calipari, but there's no way he could have possibly understood without going through it himself.

For goodness' sake, someone created a Twitter account for Noel's hair.

"I knew a lot of this was coming, but you never really know at what level," Noel said. "People say it's crazy and you think it's crazy, but you haven't really seen crazy."

Noel hasn't even played a game yet, but becoming a Wildcat has already helped turn him into one of the most high-profile players in college basketball. It was national news when the 6-foot-10 forward took a tumble playing a pick-up game with young fans at the Big Blue Madness campout. It was even bigger news when Noel was ruled academically eligible.

The Everett, Mass., native was originally set to graduate high school in 2012, but he delayed the plan by a year after breaking a growth plate in his left leg and transferring to Tilton School in New Hampshire. He and his family thought he would need an extra year to develop athletically and academically, but when he started to dominate on the prep and AAU scene, he decided to reclassify back to 2012 in February.

All of a sudden, Noel's life got a lot busier. In a span of six months, he would have to finish out his high school career, choose a college and do the class work necessary to gain eligibility. The first two came easily and quickly enough, but Noel had to spend the summer focusing solely on academics to make sure he'd be able to wear a Kentucky uniform.

He succeeded and he now has his reward: Noel got basketball back after putting it aside briefly.

"Being able to be back in the drift of maintaining my academics while working hard on the basketball court has been real special," Noel said. "I'm glad to have that back."

Inevitably, Noel found himself a little behind his teammates when he arrived on campus. His conditioning needed work and, for the first time, Calipari had two hours a week over the summer during which he could practice with his new team. Noel was obviously unable to participate.

When Noel was finally to participate in workouts and conditioning with his team, he had some catching up to do. That's still in progress, but he is putting the work in.

"On the court, I'm definitely busting my butt, working hard, making sure I stay up on cardio and conditioning and the skill work," Noel said.

As for building chemistry with his new teammates, Noel hasn't missed a beat.

"Getting to know my team, I think I'm already there," Noel said. "We've come along and become close and bonded."

Before the official start of practice later this month, Noel has gotten the chance to test those bonds in pickup games. With Coach Cal bringing in yet another top-ranked recruiting class, those games are competitive on a normal day, but special guests always seem to show up wanting to play.

Most notably, Anthony Davis - No. 1 overall pick/national player of the year/gold medalist to whom Noel is most frequently compared - matched up with Noel back in August. The showdown between Coach Cal's most recent top recruits showcased both what Noel does well - block shots, among other things - and what he needs to improve - positioning and strength.  

"I asked Anthony how was Nerlens because that's who he matched up against mostly," Calipari said. "And he said, 'He's good, Coach. He'll block some shots.' I said, 'How was he offensively?' He said, 'I kind of pushed him off the post.' I said, 'You pushed him off the post?' "

For Noel, it was valuable to see the before and after a year under Calipari juxtaposition between himself and Davis.

"It was definitely good playing against him, great experience being able to see how good he's gotten through this last year being at Kentucky," Noel said. "He's a real special player. It was good to play against a player that's been through what you're about to go through."
 
Even for Noel, putting himself up against his predecessor is impossible to avoid, but the comparison between the two is as unfair as it is natural. It's safe to assume that Noel's statistics will be stacked up game-for-game with Davis' by fans and media, but Coach Cal, unsurprisingly, is staying away.

"He shouldn't be compared," Calipari said. "They're totally different. They're not even the same. Nerlens is going to give us a different type of game."

The two players' games are different, but that doesn't mean there aren't lessons Noel can learn from Davis' one year of college.

"It wasn't totally on (Davis') shoulders," Calipari said. "He was able to build some self-esteem and confidence as the year went on, and that's what I'm hoping for (Noel). That's why I like the fact that we have seven guys that can lead us in scoring, similar to last year."

Noel and Davis both arrived on campus bearing the weight of incredible expectations, but that's where the beauty of coming to Kentucky: no one player will ever be on his own.
 

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