Noah Copes With Cross to Bear

"He would tell me, 'Would you give all of this up?'" Noah related. "And there's no way. There's no way. Sometimes this year I've taken things for granted. Sometimes you have to sit back and realize how many kids would love to be in this situation, winning an SEC championship for the third time, winning a national championship … getting to talk to all these people, press conferences, people asking for your autograph.

"We get so much love out there. It's overwhelming sometimes in Florida. But this is what it's all about. You've got to enjoy it. This stuff doesn't last forever."

But enjoyment and perspective can come and go. Human beings -- and Noah is one -- have their weaknesses. There can be stress among the good times -- especially when you're the guy in the spotlight before all your teammates.

"If that was me in that situation, I don't know if I could handle that," said teammate and roommate Al Horford. "There's so much expectations on him, so much on his shoulders. I think he did [struggle with those expectations] earlier in the year. I think that's why he wasn't as effective. … Sometimes you can't please everyone."

Noah has, at least, pleased his coach and teammates for the most part. He's had another fine season as an integral part of a relentless winner, but there has been more statistical regression than progression -- especially in this tournament.

Through four NCAA games, Noah's per-game numbers are down from last year's tournament in scoring (13.3), blocks (2.0), assists (1.8) and steals (0.8). They're up only in rebounds (11). His field-goal percentage has risen (from 55 percent to 64) but his free-throw percentage has dipped (from 84 percent to 75).

The junior Noah has the same limitations as the sophomore Noah -- same sidewinder shooting form, same lack of a jumper, same lack of upper-body strength. He undoubtedly worked on his game during the offseason, but did not show the same improvement as Horford, whose draft stock is probably higher than Noah's now.

And that Be The Man thing backfired in a lot of ways on a kid who always has been a blender on the court. As much as Noah plays the part of a melodramatic diva -- the hair, the chest-pounding, the gesticulations, the screaming -- he doesn't play the game like a diva.

He's only fourth on the team in scoring and has attempted the fewest shots of anyone on the starting five. That works wonderfully in the locker room with this selfless bunch, but it doesn't often put Noah in the J.J. Redick role of being able to shut up an opposing crowd with basket after basket.

And Noah has heard it from opposing crowds this year. More than any other player in college basketball, guaranteed.

"The amount of hate that is out there by opposing teams and fans, and Facebook pages that are created about him, it's amazing," Horford said. "I've never seen anything like that.

"At first, we thought it was funny. When it gets to the point where it's that bad, it's overwhelming. He gets a lot of hate, man."

There was the sign at LSU ripping off the Geico line -- "So easy, even a caveman can do it" -- with a picture of Noah. There were endless taunts and signs at Georgia, at Tennessee, at Vanderbilt. And there was the cheerleader at Kentucky who violated Noah's airspace, shoving her pompoms in his face after he fell to the floor in front of her.

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