Just what Kentucky opponents didn't need: An improved Nerlens Noel.
After Kentucky beat Auburn 75-53 Saturday night, Coach John Calipari mentioned how Noel is doing a better job of staying on his feet and not jumping too early to try to block shots.
"Every day we do drills to stay down," Calipari said of UK's efforts to get improved play from Noel. "So much stuff you have to teach when they're so young."
Calipari likened the problem-solving associated with a freshman-oriented team to sticking fingers in a leaky dike. One problem solved, then another issue arises.
Fans will recall how opponents early this season took advantage of Kentucky's eagerness to block shots. When Noel and company leaped to block the same shot, opponents came from the weak side and feasted on offensive rebounds.
"Part of buying in," Calipari said of Noel's growing savvy as a shot blocker. "Don't leave your feet. We do the drills. Now, go in the game and concentrate. Have some discipline. And he has. And he's still blocking shots."
At Auburn, Noel blocked seven shots, which equalled a season high. That gave him 20 blocks in UK's last three games.
"He's blocking more (shots) than before when he was leaving his feet," Calipari said.
Despite Noel limited to 25 minutes because of foul trouble, Kentucky outrebounded Auburn 43-30. Not that Noel did not have significant impact. With Noel on the bench, Auburn used more scoring chances around the basket to rally briefly in the second half.
"He helps everybody," Calipari said of Noel, "because you can't just drive, now. Because he's back there, and he will block it."
Noel's presence (his 25 minutes were fewer than he's played in all but one game this season) helped make Auburn dependent on perimeter shooting.
The Tigers missed all 15 of their three-point shots, thus becoming the first UK opponent since 2001 to miss all its shots from beyond the arc. Mississippi State missed all 19 of its three-point shots against Kentucky on Feb. 10, 2001.
Auburn became the 17th UK opponent to fail to make a shot from beyond the arc since college basketball instituted the three-point basket in 1986-87, Eight of those occasions came in the first two seasons of the rule. Only Mississippi State in 2000-01 and Georgia (zero for 16) on Jan. 14, 1995 missed more three-point shots against Kentucky without making at least one.
Calipari noted UK's attention to three-point defense for Auburn shooting blanks Saturday night. In the previous five games, Auburn had made 40.4 percent of its three-point shots (42 of 104), he said.
Auburn Coach Tony Barbee credited UK's defense, to a degree.
"Of the 15 threes, I bet maybe one of them was kind of guarded," Barbee said. "Kind of guarded. The other 14 were, like, wide open. Nobody near you. What are you going to do? ...
"I will take every look we got tonight all over again, and let's play the game all over. Not to say we'd come out withe win. But I think we'd have a different result offensively because I've got really good offensive players who did not produce tonight."
Coincidentally, Auburn made only one of 12 three-point shots against Kentucky in last season's game.
Barbee suggested that the poor perimeter shooting Saturday night adversely affected Auburn's defensive effort. Coincidentally or not, Kentucky's shooting improved as the game unfolded. The Cats made only eight of their first 23 shots, then made 22 of their final 32.
"As the drought continued, we let it affect our level of fight and our level of defense," Barbee said.
Center Rob Chubb, who led Auburn with 14 points and seven rebounds, agreed.
"We fell off on the defensive end," he said. "We gave them way too many open looks (and had) way too many breakdowns," he said. "To where they were just getting wide-open shots, and they started burying them. And they fed off that and made it harder on us."
Auburn's senior leader, Frankie Sullivan, chastised his teammates of playing "scared." But what were the Tigers afraid of?
"I guess the moment," he said before adding, "To be honest, I can't tell you."
Of course, a big crowd and high-tension basketball are the norm. Earlier this season, Kentucky played in electric atmospheres at Notre Dame and Louisville, plus on grand stages at neutral sites against Duke and Maryland.
"Coach talks to us about that all the time," Ryan Harrow said. "Every time we play in a gym, it's sold out. We're basically used to that."
Kentucky at Alabama
When: 9 p.m. TV: ESPN
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com