UK basketball notebook: Kentucky's Noel has rival in St. John's shot-blocker

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJanuary 26, 2013 

  • Next game

    Kentucky at Mississippi

    When: Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Nerlens Noel of Kentucky does not lead the nation in blocks. He's not even the leader among freshmen.

In both instances, that player is Chris Obekpa of St. John's.

Obekpa (pronounced Oh-BECK-puh) grew up in Nigeria. He came to the United States in September of 2010, and played his final two seasons of high school basketball on Long Island. He became aware of Noel when the two played (never against each other) on the AAU circuit. Of the two, Noel was the celebrated prospect and someone who intrigued Obekpa.

"After our games, I'd come back to watch him play," Obekpa said of Noel in a telephone conversation last week.

It wasn't long into Obekpa's junior high school season that St. John's recruiting interest began.

"He didn't get the attention of Noel," St. John's assistant Rico Hines said. "But, in our opinion, he's just as good."

Hines cited several factors that make Obekpa a prolific shot blocker: He's 6-foot-9 with a listed wingspan of 7-5, he's blessed with a fine-tuned sense of timing and, maybe just as importantly, he simply likes to play defense.

"Extremely unusual," Hines said, "especially in this day and age. (Players) love to dunk. ... We have to beg Chris to be more offensive minded.

"It's truly a treat."

Heading into this weekend, Obekpa had come off the bench in St. John's last three games. St. John's wanted to establish a fast pace with a smaller lineup before bringing in Obekpa. "He's still playing starter minutes," Hines said.

Obekpa blocked 87 shots in St. John's first 19 games (an average of 4.58 per game). Jeff Withey of Kansas ranked second in blocks (4.33) with Noel third (4.28).

Obekpa set a St. John's record with 11 blocks against Fordham on Dec. 8. That ranked as the second-most shots ever blocked by a Big East player: Jordan Cornette (Notre Dame), Samuel Dalembert (Seton Hall) and Dikembe Mutombo (Georgetown) each blocked 12 in a game.

His pre-game routine gives Obekpa a distinction among shot blockers. He meditates for 10 minutes before boarding the team bus. Meditation is something he and his family (he's one of 10 children) have done regularly.

"It takes (away) all the tension," he said. "It relaxes the mind."

As Noel works to keep his feet on the floor and not bite on shot fakes, so Obekpa must improve. Hines noted an over-reliance on blocks.

"He just wants to play behind (the low-post scorer) and let him catch the ball every time," Hines said. "At this level, everybody can score. You can't let them catch it and bury you."

Obekpa, who is listed at 6-9 and 223 pounds, needs to gain weight and strength to better withstand the jockeying around the basket, Hines said. But he's a standout contributor, as is, for St. John's.

"Noel is not the best shot blocker," Hines said. "He's not the best freshman shot blocker."

When told that might come as a shock to Kentucky fans, Hines said, "It's not a shock to our staff."

Knight time

Hall of Fame Coach Bob Knight was a guest on Wimp Sanderson's radio show Tuesday afternoon. In his lament of the state of college basketball, Knight deplored:

■ The impact of the three-point shot, which became a part of the game in 1986-87.

The three-point shot "inhibits intelligent movement and recognition of (scoring) opportunities," he said.

Sanderson suggested the three-point shot, a lower-percentage shot, was one factor in the noticeably lower scores in some college games this season.

■ The so-called one-and-done player, a much-more recent phenomenon that's become synonymous with UK.

"Calling it college basketball today is an absolute farce," he said. "There just aren't many college players playing college basketball."

In other comments, Knight:

■ Saluted Florida, and seemed to signal out the Gators when asked if SEC basketball was subpar this season.

"Florida is good," he said. "Florida can play with anybody, and most (teams around the country) can't play with Florida."

Knight lauded Florida's multiple strengths (inside-out scoring threats, team defense) and restrained use of the three-point shot.

■ Scoffed at the prevalence of tweets, texts and forms of Internet chatter.

Suggesting that he would not restrict such activity, he said, "I'm amazed how many kids think anybody cares whether they have a website."

■ Said his wife asked him to share his thoughts on the Alabama-Notre Dame football championship game.

"Notre Dame doesn't have a chance in hell of beating Alabama," he said he replied.

■ Cited John S. Wood as one of his favorite generals. He described Wood as a former All-America football player, Rhodes scholar and George Patton's "right-hand man in the march across France."

All-Access denied

Concerns about possible secondary rules violations led UK not to exercise an option to continue the ESPN All-Access Kentucky show beyond the three episodes that aired last October.

In a letter to SEC Commissioner Mike Slive obtained by the Herald-Leader through Kentucky's open records law, UK Executive Associate Athletics Director Sandy Bell noted that questions had been raised about footage of prospects committing to UK on the show. The commitments (by Andrew and Aaron Harrison) had been taped for use on other ESPN programming. UK had no control over its use on the All-Access Kentucky show, Bell wrote.

Bell also noted how UK limited ESPN's access and denied requests to accompany Coach John Calipari on a private plane en route to a recruiting visit. UK also denied an ESPN request to film coaches watching a live telecast of a recruit's commitment announcement.

Brown knows

SMU head coach Larry Brown was a guest Wednesday on SiriusXM's College Sports Nation channel, with host Mark Packer, and talked about what he'd most like to do to change the college game.

"I think this thing about kids coming out early is killing the game and I don't think it's good for our sport," he said according to a transcript. "And then I would have some way of sanctioning AAU programs and make kids play the right way. We have some unbelievably great AAU coaches but the thing that scares me now is the high school coach, who was one of the biggest influences in my life, in so many cases are not even involved in this process, the recruiting process, or anything. And that troubles me a little bit.

"The AAU, the kids play too many games, winning and losing doesn't really matter, and it's all about getting to the next level whether it's college or pro, and that troubles me a little bit."

EKU GPA

Last week, Eastern Kentucky announced its team grade-point averages for the fall semester of 2012. The EKU's men's basketball team had a GPA of 2.73.

Overall, EKU athletes had a GPA of 3.01. Forty-five of EKU's athletes had a 4.0.

By the way, the college basketball game in our area this weekend holding the most promise may have been Belmont at Eastern Kentucky. Late last week Jerry Palm's Ratings Percentage on CBS-Sports.com had Belmont at No. 23 and EKU No. 63 (one spot behind UK at No. 62).

Good question

At the end of his syndicated column, Norman Chad playfully responds to questions sent by playful readers.

Last week, Mark Cohen of Gibsonia, Pa., asked: "Will Maryland play itself in next year's ACC-Big Ten Challenge?"

A book?

The down-to-the-final-minute tension that was Kentucky-Alabama on Tuesday continued to show how Cecil Hurt is an island of measured calm.

Hurt, who covers Alabama for The Tuscaloosa News, brought a book to the game. It's his habit at assignments.

During timeouts and other breaks in the action, Hurt puts down his pen and picks up a book. Kids, a book is a device that binds paper pages together. It's about the size of an iPad.

To the UK-Alabama game, Hurt brought The Places in Between. Author Rory Stewart describes his walk through Afghanistan. (The Afghans boast past victories over the British and the Soviets.)

Bleed blue

The Kentucky Blood Center will tip off its fifth annual Cats-vs.-Gators competition on Monday with an event in Rupp Arena.

Those interested in donating blood are asked to come to Rupp Arena from noon to 7 p.m. Monday. The KBC will be set up in the area normally occupied by the e-Rupp-tion Zone.

To promote donations, donors will be able to shoot at a Rupp Arena basket, and also receive a Big Blue Slam T-shirt, a commemorative pint glass and a chance to win an entertainment package that includes a 60-inch smart TV with Wi-Fi, a 3D Blu-ray entertainment center and a PlayStation 3.

This Rupp Arena blood drive will continue through Feb. 1.

Happy birthday

To Chris Mills, until further notice still the only UK player to post a triple-double. He turned 43 on Friday. ... To Josh Carrier. He turns 30 on Wednesday. ... To Kevin O'Neill. The former coach at Marquette, Tennessee, Northwestern, Arizona and Southern Cal turned 56 on Thursday. ... To Perry Stevenson. He turned 26 on Wednesday. ... To Rick Robey. He turns 57 on Wednesday. ... To Tony Delk. He turns 39 on Monday.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227.Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com.Twitter: @JerryTipton.Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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