- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- John Calipari has coached No. 1 picks, lottery selections and a number of four-year players who elevated their game to a professional level.
But he may not have become as attached to a player in such a short time as he has to freshman wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The affection from MKG toward Calipari dates back to middle school when Kidd-Gilchrist watched DaJuan Wagner play for Calipari at Memphis.
"He came up to me when he was younger and talked about how much he wanted to play for coach Cal at Memphis,'' said Wagner, who said he and Kidd-Gilchrist are as close as kin. "I knew that he would be the perfect player for coach Cal and that Cal would love him. The best thing is that he plays hard, and that's why coach Cal loves him.''
Trying to rank who plays the hardest is a moot point. But no one can deny Kidd-Gilchrist's drive. It comes from something deep within.
His father was shot and killed when he was 2, and his uncle, Darrin Kidd, died of a heart attack on Nov. 10, 2010, the same day Michael Gilchrist committed to Kentucky. He decided soon after that he was going to honor both his father and his uncle by changing his name to Kidd-Gilchrist.
"I don't think I need to be pushed at all,'' said Kidd-Gilchrist. "It's in me. It's just in me. It's my father that passed away. It's that. I just want it more than others. I just want it more than others. And I hate failing too. That's why I work so hard.''
And that's exactly the reason Kidd-Gilchrist has commanded so much respect and admiration from Calipari as well as opponents. Kidd-Gilchrist has been on a tear lately in the NCAA tournament, scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 boards in the win over Indiana. He scored 19 in the win over Baylor in the Elite Eight. He will be one of the toughest matchups in the national semifinal Saturday against Louisville at the Superdome.
Kidd-Gilchrist never pulls back when he's heading to the hoop. He goes hard and doesn't stop until he gets to the rim.
"You can tell something is driving him,'' Baylor's Perry Jones III said. "He plays with a lot of heart. He's a strong kid and he's making them [his late father and uncle] proud.''
Calipari has had his battles with previous players, notably Terrence Jones a year ago. He doesn't hold back, getting on players if need be during a game or in practice.
But not Kidd-Gilchrist. He doesn't have to ride him one bit.
"He's not like that,'' said Calipari. "He's got a great heart. He wants to please everybody. He's more about everybody else more than about himself.''
Kidd-Gilchrist comes across as a bit of an introvert. He isn't someone who enjoys public speaking. Kentucky shies away from putting him on the podium during news conferences. Instead, he stays in the locker room, where he usually has a water bottle or something in his hand to give him pacing as he answers repeated questions.
He is very deliberate in his speech, thoughtful and doesn't want to rush out and just say anything.
"It's overwhelming, all this media stuff,'' said Kidd-Gilchrist. "I'm just a regular kid. I just think I'm a regular kid. Yeah, it's unfair, got to do what you got to do. It's, um, being a superstar at Kentucky, I'm just a regular kid, like these guys here.''
And you can tell that he genuinely enjoys playing for Calipari.
"He's introverted in one way, but not in another,'' Calipari said. "He wants to make sure that everyone's happy. He's not great when there is a lot of drama.''
Calipari said Kidd-Gilchrist was upset when ESPN.com reported that he was declaring for the NBA draft. Kidd-Gilchrist didn't hold back during the regionals in Atlanta, denying that a decision had been made.
"I hate it, I'm my own man,'' Kidd-Gilchrist said. "All this talk, stuff like that. But I can't fix it. This is the life I chose, this is the life I chose, that's it.''
Regardless of what Kidd-Gilchrist decides by the NBA draft deadline of April 29, he will go down as one of Calipari's favorites.
Calipari continues to cite that Kidd-Gilchrist came to him and wanted Darius Miller to start over him against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament title game.
"He told me that Darius was playing bad and he needs to get going and needs to get going in the NCAA tournament,'' Calipari said. "I told the team that Michael wanted Darius to start because he needs to play better. Come on. That's one of the youngest freshmen in the country doing that.''
Miller scored 16 points in the loss to the Commodores but didn't score in the semifinal win over Florida. Miller has scored 19 points each in two of the four NCAA tournament wins so far.
"That's why everyone wants to coach this kid,'' Calipari said. "I want Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Don't get me wrong, I want Anthony [Davis] and Terrence [Jones] too, but I want Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, believe me.''
Kidd-Gilchrist said Calipari was easy to get to know and talk to and that put him at ease.
"He's hard to get on,'' Calipari said. "He's harder on himself, like Derrick Rose was. I'm trying to get him to be more of a cheerleader for himself.''
Wagner said he noticed when Kidd-Gilchrist was young that he worked hard.
"He never wanted to be denied,'' Wagner said. "He's got that lion in him.''
Wagner said the New Jersey toughness (Kidd-Gilchrist is from Somerdale, N.J.) is perfect for Calipari.
"He wants to push you and challenge you,'' Wagner said. "And I knew that Michael would make Coach Cal proud. I knew Coach Cal would see how hard he plays. If you watch, no plays are called for him. He just goes out and plays hard.
"I knew it was going to be a good relationship,'' Wagner said. "Michael asked me about how it was going to be and I said, 'Coach Cal is going to love you as long as you keep playing the way you play.'"
And so far he hasn't dipped one bit. He may not convert every bucket or be equally productive, but the effort never changes. That's why Calipari can't get enough of coaching Kidd-Gilchrist.
"He's wonderful, caring, giving and wants to please me in the worst way,'' Calipari said after the Baylor game Sunday in Atlanta. "Is there a better guy to coach when you're a coach?''
The freshman has been on a tear in the tournament. He's earned the admiration of Calipari for his play and his approach to the game.