Block parties have been common for Kentucky's Noel


Block parties have been common for Kentucky's Noel

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Nerlens Noel isn't getting many RSVP's to his block parties.

In fact, opponents prefer to avoid the Kentucky freshman whenever making a trip to the basket.

Noel has been dominating defensively since Southeastern Conference play began, blocking 49 shots in seven league games. His 12 rejections in Tuesday night's 87-74 victory over No. 16 Mississippi set a school record - he had half of the blocks while playing with four fouls.

Kentucky (14-6, 5-2) enters Saturday's game at Texas A&M (13-7, 3-4) with the 6-foot-10 forward leading the nation in blocked shots at 4.8 per game. Noel has 95 swats, more than halfway to Anthony Davis' record of 186 during Kentucky's championship run last season.

Noel downplays ongoing comparisons to the former All-American, though he wants to break Davis' mark.

``My focus was to be a complete basketball player and I know shot-blocking was one of my specialties,'' said Noel, who's also averaging 10.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game.

``Blocking shots has been in me from a young age. I always took pride in it pride and have always thought to build on it. It's probably the best thing I've done.''

Noel loves it so much that he didn't worry about fouling out on Tuesday against Ole Miss. His only concern was doing what he could to stop the Rebels from going ahead after scoring 16 straight points to close within 73-72 with 4:32 remaining in the game.

Mississippi started that scoring run with Noel on the bench, but he returned to lock down the inside, blocking six shots and altering several others. Kentucky came away with its first victory over a ranked team this season and will embark on avenging last month's home loss to Texas A&M. To do that, the Wildcats will have to better job containing Elston Turner, who lit them up with his 40-point game.

Though Turner hasn't come close to matching that offensive output in the Aggies' five games since beating Kentucky, guard Archie Goodwin expects to shadow him the whole game to ensure there's no repeat performance.

Corralling Turner on the perimeter is more of a concern for Kentucky than controlling the paint.

Wildcats coach John Calipari believes that area is in good hands with Noel, who has blended improved technique and discipline with his shot-blocking prowess. Already considered the team's best all-around athlete - his steals and rebounds rank 16th and 32nd respectively - he has learned to stay on his feet longer and that has allowed him to time his blocks better.

``At the beginning of the season I had a tendency to leave my feet, being too anxious to block shots,'' Noel said. ``Maybe that's why I was only getting two, three, four blocks a game. Coach Cal has helped me with a lot of drills that got me right and I've adjusted to the game at this level and have really come a long way defensively.

``I try to keep my body equal. There are times when I won't try to block a shot; I just keep my hands straight up and always have them guessing what you're going to do next.''

Though Tuesday night was another example of Noel's tendency to get into foul trouble, his late block of Murphy Holloway without drawing a fifth foul also showed the strides he has made.

``I was going to ride him out because I know he's the one guy with the will to win on this team that you've got to have on the floor or you can't win,'' Calipari said Friday of Noel's finish.

The Everett, Mass., native has made his presence felt on defense since he arrived on campus.

Noel's size, skills and athleticism made it easy for him to be compared to Davis, who averaged 4.7 blocks per game while leading the Wildcats to their eighth national championship last season. While the rookie and Calipari have stressed differences with the consensus player of the year, Noel believed Davis' blocks record was within his reach.

Kentucky will likely need a deep postseason run to give Noel enough opportunities to match Davis's record, who set the mark over 40 games. But in averaging 7.7 blocks over his past six games, Noel is intent on giving it a run.

Goodwin has noticed reluctance by Wildcats' opponents to challenge Noel.

``I don't think they're hesitating, it's just that they're trying more to draw fouls,'' Goodwin said. ``The only time he fouls is when he tries to reach, but I haven't seen him get called for a foul while trying to block a shot.

``It's more them trying to take it to his body, and you can see the frustration on their faces because it's not working.''

Lost in the attention on Noel's blocks is his stamina, especially since 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein has missed the past four games while recovering from a procedure on his left knee. Averaging nearly 32 minutes per contest overall, Noel has played at least 34 minutes in six of his past seven starts.

While that durability has provided plenty of opportunities for Noel to chase Davis, he's happier that his blocked shots are helping Kentucky win games.

``It's not an individual thing,'' Noel said, ``it's about the team and I want the team to go as far as we can go, not for a record I want to break.''

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Case Keenum isn't the Redskins problem, and Dwayne Haskins won't fix it either

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Case Keenum isn't the Redskins problem, and Dwayne Haskins won't fix it either

The Redskins have lots of problems, but Case Keenum isn't one of them. Through two games this season, Keenum has thrown for 600 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. 

He hasn't been great, and he's missed some big opportunities, but Keenum isn't even close to the main reason why the Redskins are 0-2. Not even close. 

"I think he handled it really well. He might’ve miss a few throws here or there," Washington head coach Jay Gruden said of Keenum after the Cowboys loss. "He’s not taking many sacks, he’s getting out of the pocket, he’s making plays, and I love his competitiveness. I think that will rub off on the entire football team if it hasn’t already. Guys like to play for him and play with him.”

The Washington defense surrendered at least 30 points in consecutive losses to the Eagles and the Cowboys to start the 2019 campaign. The defense has given up at least 400 yards in both losses. The defensive front, the presumed strength of the Redskins team, has piled up a whopping two sacks through two games. Two. 

Offensively, the Redskins haven't been great, or even very good. Keep in mind, however, the expectations for Washington's offense weren't particularly high. Gruden has frequently talked how his team is built to "win ugly" and that the head coach is fine with low-scoring victories. 

Well, Keenum has delivered enough for those type of wins. The defense just isn't holding up their end of the bargain. In two games the Redskins have averaged 24 points with zero turnovers. That's more than enough to win ugly. 

And the truth is Keenum deserves almost all of the credit for the Redskins offensive production. The run game has been abysmal thus far. Through the first two losses, no running back has gained even 30 yards, and the Redskins collectively have less than 100 yards rushing. 

Whatever offense there has been has come from Keenum. He's missed a few big plays - a potential TD throw to Terry McLaurin in the second half of the Eagles loss and a blatant miss of a wide-open Paul Richardson against the Cowboys really stand out. But he's also made plenty of good throws and engineered some good drives. 

Keenum has also proved quite level-headed. He came to Washington knowing he had to compete for the starting job. His whole career he's been overlooked, and that has molded him into a veteran presence with a clear head. 

"Sometimes you must grind it out. It’s not always going to look pretty either, but I trust all those guys in that locker room and know that they’re going to fight no matter what," Keenum said.

Since this is Washington, there are always fans calling for the backup quarterback. In this case there is genuine excitement for Dwayne Haskins, the rookie 15th overall pick and Keenum's backup. Haskins has All Pro potential but hasn't hit the field yet. And frankly he shouldn't. Keenum has done plenty to keep a stranglehold on the starting job.

That said, late in both games this season the Redskins have been playing in situations where the result was mostly out of hand. Could Gruden give Haskins a drive to get him some real game action? Sure, but that would create a laundry list of postgame questions that Gruden probably wants to avoid. Plus, there are senior Redskins officials that are truly committed to Haskins spending the year on the bench to really learn the game. A random fourth quarter drive won't change that tremendously, in either direction. 

For now, it's Keenum, and it's the right call. He's been pretty good, and he's done enough for Washington to be in games.

"None of us expect to be average. We all want to score 100 points," Keenum said after the loss to Dallas. 

Of course the quarterback doesn't want to be average, but before the season started, the Redskins would have taken average from their QB. The plan was for low-scoring football that Washington wins with defense. 

Keenum has been better than average, the defense just hasn't shown up.


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The 0-2 Redskins say they aren't pushing the panic button yet, but they certainly should

The 0-2 Redskins say they aren't pushing the panic button yet, but they certainly should

The Redskins are 0-2 to start the 2019 season, with both losses coming to division foes. The defense, which was supposed to be a strength, is a major weakness. The running game, which was supposed to be a strength, is another major weakness. 

Furthermore, in each of their losses, Washington has looked putrid coming out of the locker room to start the second half. They're also committing crucial penalties on both sides of the ball and seem scared to take risks, do things unconventionally or make the necessary adjustments.

Yet, somehow, even considering all of that, Jay Gruden told reporters after Sunday's 31-21 loss to the Cowboys that he's not ready to overreact.

"I don't think we need to hit the panic button yet," the coach said. "We just have to continue to focus on what we can do better to win."

Josh Norman agreed.

"The season's young. It's our second game," Norman said. "We've got 14 more to go."

Well, if this team isn't ready to hit the panic button, then this young season is going to get old really, really quickly, and the next 14 contests are going to resemble the dreadful two that have already taken place. 

When a squad starts 0-2, they have about a 13-percent chance to make the playoffs. But these Redskins, with a defense that is apparently in no rush to get off the field on third downs or pressure opposing quarterbacks or play cohesive football in the secondary, figure to have much slimmer odds.

And that particular unit is precisely why everyone involved in the organization needs to be showing way more urgency than they are.

The Case Keenum-led offense isn't going to set any records, but through Weeks 1 and 2, that bunch has been better than expected. Despite having fewer than 80 total rushing yards so far, Keenum's moving the ball at a solid rate, he's helped the Redskins score first in both matchups and he hasn't turned the ball over.

The other half of the Burgundy and Gold equation, however, has fallen way short of what they claimed they'd be. They wanted to be a top-five defense, but right now, they should be worried about finishing out of the bottom-five.

The early rash of injuries, of course, don't help. Against Dallas, Jonathan Allen, Caleb Brantley, Fabian Moreau and Quinton Dunbar were all sidelined. The D-line featured a pair of guys who haven't been with the franchise for three weeks between them and the secondary was relying heavily on seventh-rounder Jimmy Moreland and 33-year-old Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Regardless, this is a group that added an All-Pro safety and a first-round edge rusher and they're still clearly regressing. At some point, what Greg Manusky's doing needs to be questioned.

"We should be better than this," Gruden explained. "We're not reaching them."

Not reaching the players? It's mid-September and they already aren't reaching them? That alone is reason for alarm.

Overall, if this was a coaching staff and a depth chart who had proven in the past that their formula and their schemes and their style largely produced positive results, then yes, it wouldn't be time to panic. That's not the case.

This is a coaching staff and a depth chart who are coming off of consecutive 7-9 campaigns and who constantly are left promising that they'll get it together soon. It's always soon, and never now. 

So, they're saying they don't think they should press that panic button, and they're correct. They should actually smash it.