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ROAD BLOCK
KELLI ANDERSON
March 19, 2012
THE PATH TO THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GOES THROUGH ANTHONY DAVIS AND KENTUCKY. OPPONENTS SHOULD PROCEED AT THEIR OWN RISK
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March 19, 2012

Road Block

THE PATH TO THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GOES THROUGH ANTHONY DAVIS AND KENTUCKY. OPPONENTS SHOULD PROCEED AT THEIR OWN RISK

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With just one scholarship offer, from Cleveland State, he decided to increase his visibility. Davis joined an AAU summer team for the first time since he was in middle school. He played one half of one game with the Chicago Mean Streets at the Boo Williams Nike Invitational in Virginia in April 2010 before he injured his ankle. But Syracuse had seen enough of his lengthy athleticism to offer him a scholarship. After that, Davis received calls from almost every D-I program—even Harvard.

The letters with scholarship offers piled so high Davis never got around to opening some of them. "It was overwhelming," he says. "I was so excited. I wanted to go see every school and talk to everyone. I still have my box of letters. When I go back home to Chicago, I look at them. I still can't believe it. All this happened to me. Just because I grew."

After narrowing his choices to Syracuse, Ohio State, DePaul and Kentucky, Davis chose the Wildcats, he says, because he liked Calipari's up-and-down style of play and his track record of preparing players for the pros. "My ultimate dream is to go to the NBA, and I think I had the best chance of doing that here," he says.

The kid college scouts were drooling over then isn't the same player NBA scouts are smitten with now, says Payne. "He had never played around the basket. He was more of a two guard; he dribbled up and shot threes. He resembled Kevin Durant at an early age."

Yet Davis was already a defensive force. "The shot blocking was there that summer," says Payne. "Any 6'10" kid playing in the high school circuit is going to block shots, but you don't know if he'll be able to make that adjustment to bigger, stronger players. But Anthony did. He hasn't scratched the surface of just how complete he can be."

As important as Davis has been to Kentucky's success so far, his value will increase in the Big Dance. "Most people when you get into tournament play become more cautious: They play the game slower," says Thompson, who went to three NCAA finals at Georgetown with Ewing at center, winning the championship in 1984. "That makes Anthony more of a factor. When you're cautious, you're not getting out and running and shooting as quick. You're trying to be precise. So what does that do? That puts that defender in a position to block shots."

Because the NCAA didn't track blocks until the 1985--86 season, the efforts of some of the game's best rejection artists—Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, to name just a few—went uncounted. The first year that stats were officially kept, Navy's David Robinson blocked 207 shots, still an NCAA season record. He added nine in a regional semifinal game against Cleveland State that launched the Midshipmen into an unlikely Elite Eight berth. Ten years later Camby had 21 blocks in five games in UMass's 1996 Final Four run (later vacated because Camby was found by the NCAA to have received improper benefits from agents). "Massachusetts in the Final Four, that's like a national title," says Calipari. "Navy in the Elite Eight is like a national title. Navy doesn't go to the Elite Eight. How did that happen? Robinson was blocking shots. It helps you."

If an elite shot blocker can have that kind of impact in the tournament on teams like Navy and UMass, what can he do for Kentucky, a team that is loaded with five other likely NBA draft picks? "They are so big," says Georgia's Fox, "they can play a two guard at 6'7" and a three man at 6'8"; when you are big like that, you can switch everything. Your own schemes and your actions don't work because they'll just switch." That's grim news for teams facing the Wildcats for the first time, though familiarity isn't necessarily helpful. After holding the Cats to 57 points using a zone in their first meeting, in Athens on Jan. 24, the Bulldogs tried that strategy again in Lexington on March 1. Kentucky hit 15 of 27 three-pointers to crush the Dogs 74--49. "If they shoot like that," sighs Fox, "no one will beat them."

As a team, Kentucky leads the country with 8.76 blocks a game, just behind the record of 9.09 set by Georgetown in 1988--89. (At this rate the Wildcats should break the season record of 315 set by NCAA champion Connecticut in 2003--04 in two more games.) But it isn't the only team that will make you pay for your hubris. The tournament's other top contenders are all ranked among the nation's top 10 in shots blocked this year: Syracuse is tied for second, with 7.09 blocks per game; North Carolina is ninth, with 5.65; and Kansas, at number 10, swats 5.64 a game.

As dominant as the Wildcats have been in most of their games, they aren't perfect, and neither is their freshman center. (Although his hands are hardly small, Davis can't palm a ball.) Imperfections bring challenges, but Davis, for one, might not mind a close game. Though he judges all his blocks as "good," he says the heroic Henson swat is his favorite. After he gathered the ball and threw it to point guard Marquis Teague, Davis ran straight to the Kentucky bench, forgetting, in his excitement, that there was still time on the clock. "It was a big block and a big game," he says. "I was going crazy, jumping up and down, and everybody was grabbing me. I had never done anything like that before. Never hit a game-winner or anything like that. That was my first time saving the game."

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