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Sunday, February 12, 2012
Medcalf: Kentucky is the clear title favorite

By Myron Medcalf

Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis may be the defensive dynamo John Calipari needs to finally claim an NCAA title.


The trumpets, trombones and saxophones of southern jazz artists will wail on French Quarter street corners as college basketball fans convene in New Orleans next month for the Final Four. Lobster, crab, scallops and an ocean of seafood delicacies will satisfy their appetites. An abundance of Big Easy nightspots will lubricate their inhibitions.

They will bring fattened wallets to a city that desperately needs the economic boost. They will cheer for their favorite teams and boo the rivals they abhor.

And they will seek Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s autograph. They will measure their arms against Anthony Davis’ uncanny wingspan. They will wonder how John Calipari’s hair does that.

College basketball history suggests that premature predictions about the Final Four -- especially four weeks prior to Selection Sunday -- often end with embarrassment.

We never saw UConn coming last year. We didn’t think VCU belonged in the field. And who really believed in Butler entering last season’s NCAA tournament?

But there’s no denying Kentucky’s current standing as the front-runner for this season’s national championship. And until there’s a reason to think otherwise, I will assume that Kentucky will wind up in New Orleans for the season’s final chapter.

Perhaps the Wildcats will suffer an early, unexpected loss in March Madness. Maybe their youth will suddenly become a burden.

But their valiant effort at Vanderbilt on Saturday night -- and so many before that performance -- continued to elevate them above the nation’s other contenders.

It could've easily fallen apart. They’d squandered a lead against a savvy assembly of veterans. The last four No. 1s that traveled to Nashville's Memorial Gymnasium had lost and you could just feel Memorial Magic taking over as Vandy overcame a 13-point halftime deficit to take a four-point lead.

Kentucky/Vanderbilt
Terrence Jones has fought through a sophomore slump to again become a major contributor.
But the Wildcats snapped that streak, not with brilliance but with relentlessness.

They’d finally encountered the “challenge” Calipari said he craved after his team made No. 7 Florida look like a prep squad Tuesday. And again, they came away with a victory.

On a night when Kidd-Gilchrist suffered from foul trouble and scored just four points. On a night when the entire team made just 3 of 14 3-pointers. On a night when Vanderbilt suddenly hit a string of second-half 3s. Kentucky still prevailed, 69-63.

No, Vanderbilt isn’t the national title contender many assumed it would be before the season began. And the Commodores’ spotty defense (the Wildcats had a 13-point edge at halftime after shooting 53 percent from the field) has proved problematic all season.

But against UK, the Commodores put themselves in a position to prevail over one of the best teams we’ve seen in the one-and-done era.

Kentucky, however, just found a way. The Wildcats, now 11-0 in the SEC and winners of 17 straight, usually do.

Four players, led by Doron Lamb’s 16 points, recorded double figures. The Cats held Vanderbilt to a 28 percent shooting clip in the first half.

It helped to have the national/defensive player of the year on their roster. Thomas Robinson is a great collegiate player. But Davis literally changes games.

He scored 15 points, grabbed eight rebounds and recorded seven blocks against Vanderbilt. Davis’ defense intensified as Vanderbilt made its second-half charge.

“We just started locking up,” he said after the game.

Think Alcatraz.

With Davis in the middle, Vanderbilt and other Kentucky opponents have developed in-game fears of the layups, dunks and simple maneuvers that require one to move within his interior radius.

He’s the top reason to bet on Kentucky to win the national title, a defensive game-changer that Calipari has never had. Teams can’t stop UK's offense. And they can’t find a solution to make their own work against the Wildcats.

Based on the numbers, the Big Blue are just better than the rest. Based on a variety of nonquantitative factors -- their ability to intimidate opponents, their chemistry, their bravado -- they’re the top contender for this season’s national title.

They’ve beaten strong teams (Kansas). They’ve beaten long and athletic teams (North Carolina). They’ve beaten fast teams (Louisville). They’ve beaten spread-the-floor teams (Florida).

And Saturday night, they defeated a gutsy, versatile Vanderbilt squad that’s gone from early struggles to an eight-game winning streak to four losses in its past seven games.

The Commodores competed with a must-win spirit in the second half, and it still wasn’t enough.

“We fought our way back,” Calipari said after the game.

As he prepared to fight George Foreman, Kentucky native and legendary boxer Muhammad Ali uttered one of his infamous rhymes:

“I done wrestled with an alligator. That's right. I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That's bad! Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick! I'm so mean I make medicine sick!”

Ali had undeniable swagger. And his native state’s top team maintains a similar vibe when it’s on the floor. The Wildcats are young, but they never look rattled.

They’re always confident. Always aggressive. Always pushing. Always winning.

And the Wildcats provided further affirmation that the latter will continue by outplaying Vanderbilt on the road in a building in which they'd lost five of their past six.

There’s so much time between now and New Orleans. Many things could change. Kentucky is the best team in America, but the Wildcats aren’t invincible.

No team in the country to date, however, has come closer to invulnerability.

And if the Cats maintain their current productivity, no other squad will.