A stallion, Noel is arguably the best all-around athlete on a team full of them. His tank is never empty, and he can play tough and aggressive post-defense with much bigger opponents.
Yet all too often Noel would make a spectacular move to get to the hoop but be unable to finish. Those "yips" diminished considerably as the year went on and he gained more and more confidence.
"Last year I would get a little nervous when I had the ball in my hands," Noel said.
Now he has proven to everyone his contribution means as much to the Tar Heels' fortunes in 2003-04 as any of his more frequently mentioned teammates, and more importantly – to himself.
Noel spent almost the entire off-season working primarily on the two things he felt needed the most improvement in his game, his ball handling and jump shooting.
"I spent time doing the necessary things to be a complete player," he said. "Now it's just like it's comfortable to me just having the ball in my hands all the time – like being a point guard or something of that nature."
Demonstrating the development of his all-around package, Noel averaged 5.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game last season, including 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds over the last 16 games. On his non-three-point-attempts, he shot 62.4 percent from the floor.
In further evidence of Noel's continuing rise, his best outing came in the postseason against DePaul, when he posted his first double-double with season-highs of 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Coming out of Southern Durham High School, the two-sport star appeared headed to John Bunting's stable of talented wide receivers, when he announced he would walk on the Carolina basketball team just days before he was scheduled to sign his letter of intent for the football Tar Heels. That touched off a rumored rift between Bunting and then UNC basketball coach Matt Doherty and added to Bunting's catastrophic Signing Day '02, in which several top prospects either chose other schools or backed out of their UNC commitment at the last minute.
Throw in one of the most controversial and publicized coaching changes in NCAA basketball history, and Noel feels like now he has seen it all.
"It was like going through 'The Twilight Zone,'" Noel said of the turmoil he's witnessed and endured since matriculating at UNC. "Just from me coming in as a football player, becoming a basketball player and now being on scholarship, to changing coaches ... it's been a wild ride.
"Your career here is always going to be like a rollercoaster – it's going to be up and down – but it's fun, so you might as well ride it until the wheels fall off."
Many believe Carolina's season drop-off from a 5-0 start and a Preseason NIT championship was due to Sean May's virtual season-ending injury, but it was that incident that paved the way for Noel to get a chance to refine his skills early in the season. His first start came in relief of an ailing Jawad Williams against Iona.
No expectations and nothing to lose enabled him to loosen his initially tight game and hone his potential into productivity.
"When Sean got hurt, it gave me and Byron [Sanders] the opportunity to play and get more comfortable on the floor," Noel said.
"And everybody has gotten so much better over the summer. With our experience and with Sean coming back healthy, we're going to be able to provide big things off the bench. We won't lose anything when we substitute. We're just going to try run five, get the next five in there and run that and keep it coming."