Wiedmer: UK center swats away any hope of UT victory

Wiedmer: UK center swats away any hope of UT victory

February 1st, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Kentucky's Anthony Davis, top, blocks the shot of Tennessee's Cameron Tatum during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Kentucky's Anthony Davis, top, blocks the shot of...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The first time Kentucky freshman center Anthony Davis took the basketball court in a real game for the No. 1 Wildcats this season, he was more worried about his coach than the opponent.

"I was really nervous," he said. "I was afraid to do much of anything. I didn't want Coach Cal [John Calipari] to spaz on me."

We now fast-forward to Tuesday night inside Rupp Arena, 24,359 blue-clad UK fans in full throat, determined not to allow Big Blue's second meeting in 17 days with Tennessee's Big Orange to become as really nervous as that 65-62 Wildcats triumph on Jan. 14.

Before this game was three and a half minutes along, Davis had scored six points, blocked a shot and handed out an assist, which were just three of the reasons UT coach Cuonzo Martin summed up UK's 69-44 win, its 14th straight: "[Davis] is the difference, probably one of the best, if not the best, in the country at changing the game with his presence on the defensive side of the ball."

Twenty-two games into a college career that probably will last one season - Davis is regarded on most NBA pre-draft boards as no worse than the second pick - the Chicago native finished with 18 points, grabbed eight rebounds, blocked seven shots and drew a second compliment from Martin, who gushed:

"When you have a guy like that, they come along once in a lifetime."

Maybe for Martin. But Calipari will tell you he's now had two such players - Davis and Marcus Camby, his former star at the University of Massachusetts who led the Minutemen to the 1996 Final Four.

But even Cal sees something in Davis he may never have seen before.

"This kid - let me just say this," Cal began. "He whistles and skips going to class, he's so happy. I heard him the other day. I said, 'Who's that whistling?' and it was him going to class, just skipping like he's having fun."

How could the Cats not have fun? Tuesday was the third straight game in which they've held an opponent to 50 or fewer points, which hasn't been done around college basketball's all-time winningest program since the 1950-51 season. That team also happened to produce the third of Big Blue's seven NCAA titles.

Moreover, on a night in which the Cats bagged just one of the 10 3-pointers they attempted, they hit their first 11 2-pointers and made 89 percent of their free throws (24 of 27), a season high.

Moreover, they forced UT into season lows in points and shooting percentage (.281) despite senior Renaldo Woolridge hitting 15 of his team-high 17 points on five first-half triples.

But for most of the Vols, it always came back to the 6-foot-10 Davis and his 7-6 wingspan - to the guy ESPN's Jay Bilas has termed "the best defender in the country, and it is not close."

Said UT freshman Jarnell Stokes, who entered Rupp averaging 10.6 points and 8.0 rebounds but left with four points and six rebounds while missing seven of nine shots: "Anthony Davis changed the game. He's definitely a great weakside shot blocker. You're always trying to see where he is."

And perhaps merely worrying about him was enough to make the Vols struggle in the paint. Though they finished with 16 inside points, they scored only two points in the lane in the opening half. By contrast, they scored 24 points in the paint in Knoxville.

Amazingly, there was a time heading into his junior year of high school when Davis stood just 6-3, which meant he was shorter than UT freshman Josh Richardson, who stands 6-6. But then Davis grew seven inches, maintained his coordination and basketball skills and became one of the nation's top five recruits heading into his senior year.

"I don't know what he's been eating," Richardson said, "but I want some."

Davis said the key to Kentucky's 22-1 start heading into Saturday's trip to South Carolina is more than talent alone.

"We play great defense, no one is jealous of anyone else and we just go out and have fun," he said. "And it's always fun when we're winning."

As Tuesday night's postgame interviews drew to a close, someone asked UK freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist what it would take to knock off the Cats.

"I don't know," he said with a shrug. "It's kind of hard to beat Kentucky."

Especially when their once-in-a-lifetime freshman whistles while he works.