Led by precocious freshmen, Kentucky has talent to win title
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Fury fuels the noise among the Kentucky blue-clad masses whenever a call goes against the home team. The uproar is a mixture of pride and desire, cascading from the furthest reaches of cavernous Rupp Arena. To understand Wildcat basketball is to have your ears ring courtside when 23,000 faithful believe their beloved team has been wronged.
The ferocity is at fever pitch because March beckons with promise. There is a growing sense that Kentucky has the best player -- see Davis, Anthony -- as well as the top-ranked team in college basketball for the past six weeks, that this is the year when John Calipari's latest band of precocious freshmen will finally lead the Wildcats its rightful spot atop the game. "Win it All," the local T-shirts declare, and no one here begs to differ, not with a 20-game winning streak in tow.
Calipari embraces the stakes in his third season as Kentucky coach. Calipari practically yawned last Saturday when his business-minded Wildcats earned their 45th Southeastern Conference championship and increased the nation's longest home winning streak to 51 by fending off stubborn Vanderbilt, 83-74. A Thursday game against Georgia at Rupp, a trip to Florida three days later, and next week's SEC tournament are viewed as nothing more than further chances for the 'Cats (28-1) to strengthen their case to be No. 1 overall seeded in the NCAA tournament. "We are just playing for that," Calipari said.
Great expectations, of course, have long been part of Kentucky basketball since Adolph Rupp brought the Wildcats into the elite. The program has since grown to enormous proportions, amped up by Rick Pitino's panache in the 1990s, and stoked now by Calipari's annual haul of top recruiting classes that quickly morph into NBA first-round draft picks. So it's national title or bust in the land of horses and bourbon even though conventional wisdom questions if a team, even one as talented as these Wildcats, can successfully navigate March pitfalls with a seven-player rotation featuring six underclassmen, including four freshmen.
Davis gives Kentuckians even more optimism. He is not only the best of Calipari's current crop of potential one-and-done freshmen, he's also a leading candidate to be named National Player of the Year and expected to be the No. 1 overall pick of this spring's NBA Draft. The lean and lanky center has been a defensive terror since the season's first game with a shot-blocking ability that makes scouts drool. Against Vanderbilt, Davis also showed a variety of offensive skills that suggested he has enough of a complete game to take the Wildcats to their eighth national championship, and first in 14 years, with sheer individual dominance. He scored a career-high 28 points and added 11 rebounds, five blocks and two steals.
"He's just a monster," said teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a freshman forward who sets Kentucky's tone on both ends of the floor with his blast-furnace intensity.
Davis looks like something created by Marvel comics, a 6-foot-10, 220-pound praying mantis in sneakers. His arms seem to have arms. Two years ago, he was eight inches shorter, just another guard in Chicago being recruited by DePaul and Cleveland State. A titanic growth spurt didn't affect his coordination or ballhandling ability. Ohio State and Syracuse swooped in with interest, but Davis liked Calipari's track record of having nine Kentucky players drafted by the NBA in the previous two years. He headed to Lexington, where unfettered idolatry awaited.
"I knew what I was getting into when I came here. It comes with the territory," said Davis, not complaining about being unable to go anywhere unrecognized.
Kentucky fans worship their own with startling zeal even though they come and go so quickly under Calipari. Davis has already become a Bluegrass folk legend, celebrated on shirts, in slogans ("Fear the Brow"), and on 30,000 posters -- showing his 7-4 wingspan outstretched over 10 basketballs -- that the university had to put out cease-and-desist orders to keep people from selling them for as much as $150 on eBay. Yet Davis isn't fazed by the commotion swirling around him. He has a Sphinx demeanor off the court as well as on, where he needed only 19 games to set the Kentucky and SEC freshmen record for blocked shots (89). Davis enters the Georgia game with 138 blocks, already 10th most for a career in the 109 seasons of basketball played by the Wildcats. Fear the Brow, indeed.
Blocked shots and alley-oop slam dunks by Davis have become the flashy signature of this Kentucky team, but its engine runs on no-frills petrol. The Wildcats possess a lunch-bucket mentality that belies their royal status. They do the dirty work. They share the wealth on offense (six players average at least 9.8 points, led by Davis' 14.3), with freshman point guard Marquis Teague directing the way, his growing maturity shown in his improved shot selection and ball protection. Their half-court man-to-man defense leads the nation in field goal percentage defense (.365), a mark that hasn't been so low at Kentucky since the 1957-58 season. No opponent has made half its shots. Davis lurks near the hoop to erase any mistakes. He's not alone. Sophomore forward Terrence Jones has 51 blocked shots, and the Wildcats top the nation in that category with 262.
"This team clicked a little faster than our other teams," said senior guard Darius Miller, a proven clutch performer off the bench. "We bought into defense. Defense is the main reason we're winning games."
Defense begins with attitude, something that seems ripe for trouble when pampered high school recruits with the NBA on their brains land in an environment celebrating their every breath. Yet the Kentucky stars have come together to form one galaxy of unselfishness, all living in the moment. "I think they're scary good," said Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy. "When you look for holes that you may have an opportunity to exploit, they don't have many. As impressive as they are as individuals, I think they're even better as a team."
Credit Calipari for molding his frisky colts into a unit with single-minded purpose. His many critics see him more as a recruiter than a coach, a label in part due to his polarizing nature. They scoff at his one-and-done method as being bad for the game. Calipari is the slick guy who took Massachusetts and Memphis to the Final Four only to have those trips vacated by NCAA violations attributed to the schools, not him. Calipari, an eternal optimist, is too busy worrying about his team to be bogged down by his clichéd characterization. As he likes to say, you try coaching four freshmen. He leaves no detail unaddressed, harping on each player with equal decibels to keep their egos in check and to toe the fine line between swagger and arrogance. To further bind them, he has distasteful memories of Kentucky's lone defeat, a 73-72 heartbreaker at Indiana in December on a buzzer-beating three-point dagger by Christian Watford.
"We don't want to have that feeling again," Davis said. "It keeps us from being bigheaded. Guys on this team are not like that as individuals. And Coach Cal makes sure of that. He's still always on you. He doesn't care who you are. He's always going to yell at you and make sure you do the right thing."
For Davis, that means concentrating on blocking shots, not taking them. He hasn't attempted more than 13 in a game all season despite wooing everyone in practice since day one with a deft touch. His 28 points against Vanderbilt came on 10-of-11 shooting. Teammates never hear Davis complaining about not getting the ball enough. "He appears to have sacrificed himself for the benefit of their team," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
Stallings was the latest in a long line of coaches to praise the Wildcats for their disposition and selfless play. The testament of vanquished opponents heightens the locals' customary bloodlust for a national championship. Calipari took them to the Elite Eight in his first season and the Final Four a year ago. A natural progression seems appropriate despite the fact that Kentucky trailed at the half in each of its past two games, including a 13-point deficit at Mississippi State that was wiped out by the team's trademark will to win.
"It's amazing how the freshmen are reacting the way they are," he said. "But we still don't know in [NCAA] tournament play how they're going to react when it's you lose and it's over. We think we know, but we really don't."
Questions linger for the Wildcats, as they do for every team in a season marked by top-shelf parity. Their perimeter shooting is suspect outside of sophomore guard Doron Lamb, which could prove fatal, especially if confronted by Syracuse's flypaper zone. If some upstart opponent refuses to wilt in an earlier round, will Kentucky panic as its team led by freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins did two years ago in a bricklaying Elite Eight loss to West Virginia? Heat comes with the unknown.
"That's why I came to Kentucky," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I love the pressure."
March is a time of reckoning. If it plays out as expected in Kentucky, they'll wave goodbye to Anthony Davis and perhaps more of Cal's freshmen, only this time the legions in blue-and-white will first hang another banner in the rafters of Rupp Arena, up above the sound and fury.