On Saturday night, Kentucky will be in Nashville, Tenn., to play the Vanderbilt Commodores. In a vacuum, this fixture has all the makings of an upset: It's Kentucky's first real SEC road game against a likely NCAA tournament team. Memorial Coliseum -- with its baseline benches and cavernous sight lines and elevated court -- is a very difficult, downright strange place to play. And it's the College GameDay feature, meaning fans will be wired from early morning until the 9 p.m. ET tip in anticipation of what might be.
And yet, if you scour the college hoops corner of the Interwebs today, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks Vanderbilt can actually beat the Wildcats. Frankly, most (including yours truly) aren't quite convinced Vandy can even keep it close; it seems much more likely UK will roll to yet another frighteningly impressive win. Early Friday morning, between sips of Red Bull and the Beatles-scored Bottom 10, Myron Medcalf and I discussed the difficulty of looking at teams like Florida and Vanderbilt as potential challengers to Kentucky. There are just so few flaws to pick on, so much talent at coach John Calipari's disposal, and so little hope for teams to match up.
Tuesday night's blowout win over Florida cemented this impression, but there was reason to see it before the Gators were mercilessly thrown to the Rupp Arena wolves. As John Gasaway noted Tuesday, the last time Kentucky didn't look downright dominant came late in the first half at LSU. From that point forward, Kentucky went "on a 204-122 run over 152 possessions spread across a little more than 2½ SEC games, outscoring their conference opponents during that stretch by (take a deep breath) 0.54 points per possession." UK outscored Florida by 0.34 points per trip Tuesday night. The gas pedal was still glued to the floor.
In the meantime, America got something of a reintroduction to Anthony Davis, the highly touted freshman who has quickly morphed into a transcendent defensive player. Davis' Tuesday night highlights were his typical slew of athletic dunks and mind-blowing blocks, and fans who slept through the Cats' early SEC romp were informed (or reminded) that Davis has already set school and conference records for blocks in a season. At one point, the UK-UF broadcast featured a graphic comparing Davis' freshman season to that of Shaquille O'Neal's. Davis' compared more than favorably.
But why is he so good? Some of the answers are easy: Alien-level length, Avatar-level athleticism, pre-growth-spurt guard skills, intuitive defensive awareness, and so on. You don't have to be a basketball savant to look at Davis and figure out why he blocks so many shots and effects so many more: He's really tall, really athletic and really smart. But there's a less-touted quality Davis has displayed this season, one that sets him even further apart from most big-time collegiate shot-blockers: He rarely commits fouls.
Stats guru Ken Pomeroy noticed as much this week, and so he decided to examine how Davis' combination of crazy-high block rate (15.1 percent) and low foul rate (2.6 fouls per 40 minutes, which is lower than Marquis Teague, Darius Miller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones) stacked up historically. What he found is that Davis -- when compared with all-time shot blockers like Hasheem Thabeet, Jarvis Varnado, Dikembe Mutombo and Marcus Camby -- is basically one of a kind:
There’s only one mega-shot blocker with an NBA résumé that has not committed at least three fouls per 40 minutes and that was Colgate’s Adonal Foyle, who was picking on non-scholarship Patriot League opponents in the late '90's. Davis isn’t immune to foul trouble, obviously, but among shot-blockers he’s as foul-proof as one gets. The only games where his minutes were seriously limited due to fouls were against Old Dominion and Indiana. Those were two of the five games where he’s played fewer than 28 minutes. The other three were non-competitive contests. It also helps that Davis has committed just three charges this season, so he’s not going to pick up fouls on offense very often.
In Kentucky's only loss this season -- the last-second Christian Watford-led loss at Indiana -- Davis picked up two fouls within 50 seconds of each other with eight minutes remaining in the first half. At the 17:35 mark in the second, he was whistled for his third. His fourth came with 12 minutes to play. This practically forced Calipari's hand: He had to take his dominant defender out of the game for long stretches, both in prevention of that ever-dreaded third first-half foul and out of concern that Davis wouldn't be available in crunch time. Davis played just 24 minutes that day, and Indiana mustered the 1.04 points per trip it needed to send IU fans flooding onto the Assembly Hall court.
That turn of events, and Kentucky's thorough dominance since, has led folks like me to ask whether the only hope to beat Kentucky is to see if you can't get Davis in foul trouble. When he's on the floor, it's incredibly difficult to score. Florida's unique skill set -- lots of deep 3s -- didn't get the job done, not only because the Gators missed a few open looks on the road, but also because Kentucky's athletic perimeter defenders know they can play their matchups tight to 25 feet. If they get beat on the dribble, well, what does it matter? The big fella will be there to clean it up. This is why Wildcats opponents shoot just 37.8 percent from two-point territory, the lowest mark in the country. If you can't get easy buckets down low, and you have defenders in your face at the 3-point line, how do you score? What's the answer?
The best bet, given all this, would be to attack Davis and hope he commits fouls. Maybe he'll have to sit down, and Eloy Vargas (no shabby defender either, but hardly Davis' caliber) and Kyle Wiltjer will take over in the paint, and UK's defense will suddenly spring open in new and enthralling ways. Hey, a layup! Woo!
Turns out, for a shot-blocker of his stature, Davis commits an incredibly low number of fouls. Instead, he uses his length and second-jump ability to affect everything remotely near the paint. Even if you get him up on a headfake, or find a forward streaking to the rim, Davis can recover quickly enough to challenge the shot anyway. So go ahead. Try it. See if you can get him into foul trouble. Few teams have this season, especially in the SEC. (Florida seemed keen to try, feeding beastly-in-his-own-right Patric Young early and often on the block. Young got a few scores past Davis' arms, but he couldn't get the UK center to overcommit or foul.) And if that strategy isn't viable -- and it isn't -- what, exactly, are opposing offenses supposed to do? As Ken writes today, "A strategy to challenge Davis in the hope of getting him in foul trouble is likely going to end in rejection."
Despite all this, the Wildcats aren't yet the best defensive team in the country. In fact, Ohio State has allowed a half a point per possession less to opponents over the course of the season, and the Buckeyes have been slightly better in Big Ten play -- against better competition -- than have the Wildcats. But here's the really scary part: These past two weeks, one can't help but watch UK and not see this defense getting better, more decisive, more confident, more complete. Believe it or not, there may be more improvement to come.
Even if that doesn't happen, even if this is as good as Kentucky will get (doubtful, but we'll see), the options for beating this defense -- especially for a team like Vanderbilt, so stylistically similar to Florida -- are next to zero. You can't score over Anthony Davis. You can't get him to foul you. His teammates know this, and overplay you on the perimeter, so you can't just shoot a bunch of 3s. Or maybe you can? It's offensive basketball as a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Let's try this now! We might as well see what happens!
The Commodores will have to make their own choices Saturday night. Whatever they choose, they'll have Davis' incomparable defensive brilliance in mind. Few players in college basketball can so comprehensively change games this way. That Davis does is his unique gift, Kentucky's overriding advantage, and the chief concern of 2012 title contenders everywhere.