Tuesday's win at No. 16 Ole Miss was a coming-of-age moment for the Kentucky Wildcats.
John Calipari has been pushing his kids hard all season. The coach said he wanted to see improvement and he certainly has. This looked like the team Big Blue nation has been waiting to see.
ESPN's recruiting gurus ranked the Wildcats as the No. 1 class coming into this season, setting the expectations sky high. But let's remember that Kentucky had the top two picks in last year's NBA draft (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). The national championship team basically left for the pros, with only Kyle Wiltjer returning among key players.
At Ole Miss on Tuesday night, Kentucky beat a ranked team for the first time this season. There had been other opportunities, like the Duke game in Atlanta in mid-November. Beating the Rebels was a statement game, and there were naysayers out there questioning whether the Wildcats were worthy of making the NCAA tournament. The résumeé
was lacking before the boost in Oxford.
The key was Nerlens Noel in the paint. He showed why he is one of the best shot-blockers in America, setting a school-record by swatting away 12 shots. When I saw Noel play in high school, I wrote that he was the best shot-blocking prospect that I had seen in more than 30 years of covering the game.
His motto on Tuesday was "Thou Shalt Not Enter the Lane." He was a difference-maker defensively, changing shots and influencing the Rebels' offense. He was flat-out special.
Now Kentucky has to build on this victory by winning at Texas A&M. It is not easy to win at College Station, and the Aggies already have a W in Lexington this season behind 40 points from Elston Turner.
For now, Big Blue nation is smiling. When all is said and done, I believe Kentucky will be a part of the big dance. The Wildcats have the potential to be a dangerous opponent come tourney time.