FOX Sports Exclusive
Davis changes everything for Kentucky
The play of the game, a contest that has delivered John Calipari to his moment of truth or consequence, will go all but unremembered.
It was provided, appropriately enough, by the player of the year, Anthony Davis. But this wasn’t a dunk, or one of Davis' typically spectacular blocks, the kind that infect opponents with a sudden sense of defeat. It was merely an offensive rebound, the third of only six Kentucky would have on the night.
The score was tied at 49. Louisville had just gone on a 17-4 run. Sure, Kentucky had more talent than Rick Pitino's squad. But so did Marquette, Michigan State and Florida. Louisville beat them. Why not Kentucky?
Well, if you need to ask after Kentucky's 69-61 victory Saturday, the answer is: Anthony Davis, that’s why not.
"The difference, quite frankly, is just Anthony Davis," said Pitino, who prematurely, if justifiably declared the Kentucky freshman "the No. 1 player picked in the draft" and, less accurately, compared him to Bill Russell.
No disrespect to Russell, who might be the greatest winner the game has ever produced. But just a few weeks after his 19th birthday, Davis already possesses skills Russell never had. But back to the play of the game.
It was Anthony, under the basket, retrieving his own miss. In split seconds: ferocity and grace. First, he got the rebound, then, as he fell out of bounds, he found a way to split the defenders and get the ball to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who broke the tie with a layup, his first basket of the night.
Calipari's Wildcats held the lead for the rest of the game, as they should have. They have five other NBA-caliber players. But it all works around Davis, who can dominate a game, as he did in Saturday's semifinal, while shooting just eight times.
"When you see this young man at the collegiate level, you realize why they’re so good," said Pitino.
"He can change every shot," said Louisville’s senior guard, Chris Smith.
He had five blocks, some of them looking and sounding more like volleyball spikes. Less quantifiable were the innumerable shots he altered. Yes, that part of his game is Russell-esque, as were the 14 rebounds. And did I mention he was seven for eight from the field?
But there is a skill level, a nimble-ness with the ball, rarely seen in a guy this long. Davis is listed as 6-10. But it seems as if each of his limbs is 6-10 as well. Guys that long shouldn't be able to do what Davis can — bring up the ball or make the finesse pass.
As the game ended, Davis removed his mouthpiece and began to scream at the Kentucky fans: "This is my stage! My stage."
It wasn't a moment of modesty. But after such a remarkably efficient effort, it was heartening to see a desire commensurate with his talent. Three years from now? Five years? What kind of player will this kid be as a man? How could you not take him number one?
This being a Calipari-coached team, the obvious comparison is Davis to Marcus Camby, the nimble, shot-blocking big man on the first of Calipari's three Final Four teams (or the first of his two vacated, whichever you prefer). But Camby, good as he was, wasn't nearly the shot-blocker Davis is. Camby blocked 105 shots as a freshman, 128 as a junior. Davis has now blocked 180.
Pitino was correct: Davis was the difference. But it wasn't as if he saved his best for the biggest game of his young career. Rather, what's more astounding, is that he played his normal game.
"He did what he’s done all year," said Calipari. "Blocked four or five balls. He scored around the basket. Had a couple offensive tip-ins. But the greatest thing about him is ... he makes his teammates better."
And not just on the defensive end, either. Calipari noted that his team shot 60 percent in the first half. "Marquis Teague was shooting layups to start the game," he said. "Darius (Miller) was going in because they wouldn't leave Anthony, which gave us baskets around the rim.
"The reason we shot such a high percentage is Dieng" — Gorgui Dieng, Louisville’s center — "was back and wouldn’t leave him."
In due course, that would change. Anthony Davis would demand more attention. "I knew I could make plays down there," he said. "I was asking for the ball."
Yes, it was his stage. And come Monday night, it will belong to his coach.
Calipari got a few laughs, saying he would let Davis play point guard if he came back to Lexington next season. But there's no going back here, not for any of them.
"We’re Kentucky," said Davis. "We’re built for this."
More Stories From Mark Kriegel