- Valparaiso Crusaders - December 7, 2016 - Rupp Arena - 8:00 PM EST - SEC Network
In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team’s postseason run,CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK’s journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.
NEW ORLEANS – Many of words have been used to describe Anthony Davis during a record-setting freshman season, but rarely has he been called “human.”
Davis has been compared more often to extinct creatures – most often, the pterodactyl – and yet-to-be-discovered extraterrestrials than his own species. And within weeks of setting foot on campus, his new head coach bestowed the nickname “Spider-man” on the 6-foot-10 forward.
On the heels of an 18-point, 14-rebound, five-block effort against Louisville – a stat line unmatched in the Final Four since 1988 – and wearing his practice jersey around his neck like a cape during interviews, Davis has perhaps never looked the part of a superhero than on Sunday.
With a national championship within reach, Davis is one step away from going from superhero to immortal in the eyes of many Kentucky fans, but the star of the only team standing in the Wildcats path doesn’t see things that way.
“Anthony Davis is a great player, but he’s not Superman,” Thomas Robinson said.
Robinson – the only player who has managed to keep pace with Davis in the player of the year race – and his Kansas Jayhawks (32-6) will take on Kentucky (37-2) on Monday at 9:23 p.m. ET for the national championship. According to ESPN, the title game will mark just the fourth time since 1979 that two first-team All-Americans have face off in the title game.
It’s fitting that a college basketball season dominated by Davis and Robinson will be bookended by a matchup of the two. Most didn’t know how good they would be at the time, but Davis posted 14 points, seven blocks and six rebounds in a 75-65 win over Kansas in both teams’ second game.
Robinson would foul out in that game after posting a double-double, but his 11 points and 12 rebounds on 5-of-12 shooting made for a rather pedestrian showing in a season in which he’s averaged 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds.
“We tried to keep him outside the paint because he likes to dominate inside the paint,” Davis said. “We tried to take him out of his comfort zone and I think we did a great job of it.”
Even though Robinson wasn’t a household name just yet, UK recognized his brilliance and game-planned accordingly, repeatedly sending double teams his way. Reflecting on the game, Robinson said he had been “bullied.” He will be out to prove himself the second time around, though the Wildcats need no convincing.
“We know how good Thomas Robinson is,” John Calipari said. “We all up here know. We went against him in New York (at the Champions Classic). He is as good as they get. He’s a vicious competitor, great around the rim.”
Based on the box score alone, Davis would seem to have been largely responsible for Robinson’s subpar effort, but Terrence Jones was actually the primary defender on the junior forward and just one of Davis’ seven rejections came on one of Robinson’s shots. How the Wildcats elect to defend Robinson is unknown at this point, and Coach Cal wouldn’t rule anything out.
“I don’t really know who is going to guard him,” Calipari said. “We may play a 2-3 zone. Those guys are so big, we may fall into a zone. I haven’t played that very often, but we may do it.”
With Robinson anchoring the middle, Calipari called the Jayhawks “the best post-up team in the country,” but with the evolution of Davis since that first game, the Wildcats aren’t all that far behind. Back in November, Jones was the only player UK would regularly give touches inside with his back to the basket, but Davis now deftly deploys spin moves and jump hooks with both hands on helpless defenders.
When he first began working on the hook shot with assistant coach Kenny Payne, Davis recalls “air balling and hitting the backboard” more often than making the shots. Now, he’s to the point where he is actually demanding the ball inside, which is what he did in the national semifinal against Louisville.
“I came a long way with the jump hook (from) earlier in the season,” Davis said. “I didn’t even try to score the ball in the post at the beginning of the season. I didn’t feel comfortable and I just kept working on it, kept practicing. Now, I really want the ball in the post because I have a lot of confidence and my teammates have a lot of confidence in me as well.”
Davis’ post game will be subjected to arguably its toughest test of the season against a dynamic Jayhawk frontline. Robinson has just 34 swats on the season, but the center that lines up alongside him, Jeff Withey, is actually a better shot blocker than Davis according to some metrics. He has 136 rejections on the season, 44 fewer than Davis, but boasts a higher block percentage at 15.1 (best in the nation) compared to Davis’ 13.9.
During the NCAA Tournament, Withey has 27 blocks to Davis’ 23, and both are threatening Joakim Noah’s record of 29 in a single tournament. Seven of Withey’s rejections came in a semifinal win over Ohio State, which contributed to Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger connecting on just 5-of-19 shots.
“He’s the same way (as Davis),” Calipari said. “He changes the game. If you go in there, you’re not ready for him to go get it, he will.”
Davis won’t be the only Cat who has to contend with Withey, as other players venturing into the lane will have to cope with the 7-footer.
“We can’t really think about that too much,” Darius Miller said. “We still have to attack the same that we have been all year. We can’t let him intimidate us or be scared to go into the paint just because he’s there. We have to attack him the same way we’ve been attacking everybody else.”
No matter the impact of Withey in tournament play or the fact that Davis is unlikely to line up against Robinson one-on-one, the prospect of the two All-Americans taking the floor in the season’s biggest game is far too juicy of a storyline to be ignored.
However, the two stars, though effusive in their praise of one another, know they are only (very important) cogs in an effort bring home the eighth national title for UK and fourth for Kansas.
“We just have to be Kansas, do what we do best, keep being aggressive,” Robinson said. “(Davis) is a good player, but we’re not going to change anything we do. Just going to stick to the program.
“We know he’s a great player and probably one of the better players we’ve played all season,” Davis said of Robinson. “We know he’s going to come out with the mindset to dominate and we’re just going to try to contain him.”