Anthony Davis makes UK the favorite
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The first odd thing Anthony Davis noticed were his clothes shrinking.
"Suddenly my pants and shoes weren't long enough," Davis said.
"My mom just told me that she bought clothes; why did she have to buy more?"
Growth spurts sometimes come when you least expect them. For Davis, it started when he was a 6-foot-2 freshman and playing like a guard at Perspectives Charter High in Chicago.
Two years later, he started his junior season three inches taller.
And then, by the end of that summer, it was even more noticeable.
"He was 6-7 in the summer league," said Perspective coach Cortez Hale. "It was like 'Wow, he woke up and grew.' And then he grew three more inches his senior year."
Davis became a 6-10, long, lean forward, one who had been a playmaking guard just a few years before.
That original skill set has served him well. He was a guard who was suddenly in a shot-blocker's body. He could dribble without the ball going off of his foot. He made plays with the ball in his hands, and all of a sudden he was also doing it on the defensive end. He became -- seemingly overnight -- the type of player that simply doesn't exist in the game right now.
"He didn't go through the stages of losing his coordination," Hale said. "He was 6-3 and then he was just taller, but even more dangerous."
"It gave me a big advantage, especially being able to beat guys off the dribble," Davis said. "I could lead the fast break when other guys that were as big as me couldn't."
Davis was a coveted player. But he had no idea what was going to occur when he signed with Kentucky. Sure, he made bold statements saying that the Wildcats could win the national title. But he was young. He didn't anticipate that he would dominate a game and had no idea he could change the game. He never realized he would become the most talked about player in the game -- both by those who are playing now and by a number of iconic centers who have played the game at the highest level.
"I thought I would come in and be a regular guy," Davis said. "I thought I would just make shots, block a couple of shots and finish around the rim. I didn't think I would have as much of an impact as I am [having] now."
Davis and Kansas' Thomas Robinson are the two favorites for national player of the year. Davis was both SEC Defensive Player of the Year and Player of the Year, averaging 14.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.6 blocks a game. He even made three 3s (in 18 attempts).
What kind of a difference-maker is he for Kentucky?
"[He's having] the same [impact] that Marcus Camby did," said Wildcats coach John Calipari, referring to the center he coached on UMass' 1996 Final Four team. "I mean we were a Top 25 team, and then Marcus Camby made us a top-5 and then the No. 1 team in the country for 15 straight weeks. Anthony gives us that guy on defense who makes you take jump shots -- which is what Marcus did. [On offense], he opens up the middle 'cause you have to put a body on him.
"If he's near the baseline, you do not step up, you just stay back -- which means we get all that middle all for our ourselves. If they do come up, we're going to throw the lob," he said.
"What he does with his presence on the floor [has] made us from a Top 25 team to the No. 1 team."
Davis started to get everyone to pay attention when he blocked John Henson's baseline shot to save a win over North Carolina in December. By late February, he had everyone's attention with a 28-point, 11-rebound, 6-block performance in a win over Vanderbilt.
Sure, Kentucky has a ton of talent. Few teams can match up against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the wing. When Terrence Jones and Darius Miller slash to the basket and Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer make 3s, it opens up everything. Marquis Teague is getting better at managing each game.
But the key factor is Davis. Kentucky has him. No one else does.
And iconic figures in the game have noticed the impact.
"He's a part of the scouting report," said former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., who coached some of the top centers in the game in the 1980s and '90s. "You have to be conscious of where he is. It's a great asset."
Thompson Jr. loves that Davis isn't ashamed to be a big guy.
"So many of these Euro players want to just take jump shots," Thompson Jr. said. "This kid isn't reluctant to blocking shots and rebounding at all."
Former Virginia and Houston Rockets center Ralph Sampson, whose son Ralph III plays at Minnesota, noticed immediately how Davis sets the tone.
"His blocks send fear," Sampson said. "He will change the trajectory the next time a guard comes through. They may not take through as hard. He sets the defense at the beginning of the game."
Former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, who led Navy into the NCAA tournament, called Davis a true big man.
"I've been wondering where they've all gone," Robinson said. "Everyone wants to shoot and ball handle. He does all the dirty work. He dominates the defensive end. There aren't many guys like him anymore. I'm really impressed with how much he controls the game. On a team full of superstars, he made himself stand out."
Lately, the game has been about whether a team has an elite point guard. That has seemed to be the recipe for a title chase in recent seasons.
It is, unless you have someone like Davis.
"If you take an opportunity and look back and observe the game," said Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore, a former Spurs player and Jacksonville Dolphin in college, "very few are good from the perimeter and on the low post as well."
Gilmore cited his contemporaries like Robert Parish, a skilled big man with the championship Celtics who could block shots, had a variety of low-post moves and could hit the face-up jumper. "I look at Tim Duncan, too. Tim is basically one of those guys [who] can do that."
The unique aspect to Davis, though, is how he naturally moved into being a shot-blocker as his body grew.
Why? Well, according to those who played the game at this position, you can't teach shot-blocking. It's in you, or it's not.
You can work on refining the technique. But the instinct has to be in place.
"It's all about instincts and timing and you have to have great timing," Davis said. "You have to not take the ball fake and you can't draw fouls. The great shot-blockers didn't get into foul trouble. You have to stay down and wait until the ball is released."
But what makes Davis a unique shot-blocker is that he can block shots outside of his area. That's because of his mobility -- which comes from being a guard only two years ago.
"A lot of big guys don't go out on the perimeter and block shots," Davis said. "I'm quick enough and long enough to take a chance and alter a shot."
"He knows what he can do," Sampson said. "Bill Russell told me that shot-blocking is an instinct. You can't really have a guy that doesn't have the instinct to go after them. You can't teach that. To block the shot, save it, retrieve it, that's a unique talent. It's an instinctual ability."
Former Kansas center Danny Manning, who is now an assistant, said Davis protects the rim and against backdoor cuts.
He said a number of players with Davis' slender body type want to be Kevin Durant. They have the athleticism. They want the stats. They want to shoot 3s. Not too many want the recognition of being a defensive player.
"It's the shots that he didn't block that creates a problem, that's what Russell would say about shot-blocking," Thompson Jr. said. "A lot of people block shots. But [Davis] creates a mental presence. People won't go in on him because they think he's going to block it."
Terry Holland, the East Carolina athletic director, was Sampson's coach at Virginia when the Cavaliers made the Final Four.
He didn't hold back on his effusive praise of Davis in comparison to the 7-4 Sampson.
"He's probably a better shot-blocker than Ralph," Holland said. "He's more mobile. Ralph was 7-4 and there were some disadvantages. But [Davis] plays the same size."
Holland said that Sampson's intimidation or his mere threat to block a shot became more important than an actual block.
"It requires an awful lot of sacrifice," Gilmore said. "Shot-blocking in my day wasn't as big a deal. It wasn't emphasized. Scoring is how guys make their money. You don't have that many guys anymore [who] have the desire."
"Blocking shots gives you another possession," said Davis, who enters the NCAA tournament with 157 blocks. "I really love it. I get the crowd into it, especially if it's a big block and everybody goes crazy. I love blocking shots off the backboard or into the stands. It gets me riled up as well."
Offensively, Davis said he knows he has to not hold onto the ball too long. He said he wasn't used to playing with a shot clock. Those offensive lessons will come with experience.
What's at stake over the next three weeks is a chance to win the national title, which would mark the Wildcats' first since 1998.
Davis gives them their best opportunity to do so. Sure, they were in the Elite Eight two seasons ago and the Final Four last year. But they weren't the favorite. They are now because of Davis.
"He will have a huge impact before the game starts," Robinson said. "He will take every team out of their comfort zone. He will win more games for Kentucky."
Holland said it's possible that Kentucky can play a hot shooting team that will make Davis less effective if it's hitting 3s. But they better be quick shooters. Vanderbilt took advantage of the lulls on Sunday in the SEC tournament title game. Indiana made the 3 to beat Kentucky in December.
"But Kentucky has a guy now that can take away the other team's easy shots, and that's important," Holland said.
Calipari has worked with Davis playing on the second team in practice, just in case he gets into foul trouble. But let's not fool ourselves. Davis has to be on the floor for Kentucky to win the title.
And if he is, the Wildcats are the favorite to cut down the nets in New Orleans.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.