Brandon Knight was key to Cats run

HOUSTON -- Down 11 points with three minutes left in a regional final game, Brandon Knight stood among his high school teammates. Their heads were hanging. Their dream of a run to the Florida state championship was evaporating and they looked like they had pretty much given up.

Instead of screaming or reaching for some bombastic fire and brimstone, Knight looked directly at his coach, David Beckerman.

"He said to me, but loud enough for everyone to hear, 'What time is practice tomorrow?'" Beckerman recalled.

After the huddle broke, Knight drained three 3-pointers, picked up a charge and a steal, dished out three assists and finished with 52 points. Pine Crest not only went to the state championship game; the tony school known for its academic muscle also won the thing.

That is how Knight does business.

He sticks hard to Theodore Roosevelt's motto of speak softly and carry a big stick. Knight isn't going to overwhelm anyone with effusive or entertaining postgame interviews. He has Josh Harrellson to do that.

He isn't going to hop on press tables and point to the crowd after a big win. DeAndre Liggins can handle that chore.

Nor is he going to stare down an opposing bench and signal his made 3-pointer. Let Terrence Jones do that.

No, what Knight is going to do is simply beat you in every imaginable way.

In the four NCAA tournament games he's played, in his first college season, Knight has delivered the direct dagger with two buzzer-beaters -- stunning Princeton on a drive to the hoop and Ohio State with a pull-up jumper -- and the indirect blow of 30 points against West Virginia and a masterful 22 against North Carolina.

Knight comes to Houston overshadowed by the impossible story of VCU versus Butler and the star power of Kemba Walker, but could easily exit this city as the most important player on the floor.

"He's the anchor of that team and he does it very well," said North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall. "I think he's shown throughout his career what kind of player he is."

Being the starting point guard at Kentucky isn't for the faint of heart. It is an all-eyes-on-you position that requires equal parts confidence and equal parts soundproofing -- the belief that you are good enough to handle the job and the noise blockers to keep out the criticism that invariably comes when you fail to do so.

Why I put the ball in his hands, is because he is not afraid to miss it.

-- John Calipari

Knight is the star now, the kid who has delivered on the promise of his high school hype -- he was a consensus top-five player in his class -- but for a while, he was the collegiate kid who missed. When Kentucky was finding itself, suffering the growing pains of a team in transition, it was Knight who had the ball three times in critical games in critical situations.

Three times he failed. Against Alabama, it was a late turnover, and against both Florida and Arkansas, his would-be winning 3-pointers fell short.

That coach John Calipari still put the ball in his hand in the two most critical moments of the season -- tied with two seconds left against Princeton and tied with Ohio State with five seconds left -- tells you all you need to know about Knight.

"Why I put the ball in his hands, is because he is not afraid to miss it," John Calipari said. "If you really want to be that guy, you have no fear if you miss. If I miss, I miss, but I am not afraid to miss this shot. Life will not end."

Calipari knows a thing or two about brazen point guards. Knight is just the latest hoops prodigy to handle the ball for the coach, following in the gilded footsteps of Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall. But it is Knight whom the coach calls "the most conscientious, hardworking player I've ever been around."

That's some heady praise, but praise echoed by Beckerman, a man who knows a thing or two about exceptional.

In 1971, Beckerman founded the Starter apparel company and is a former trustee on the Naismith Hall of Fame board.

"He's very rare," Beckerman said of Knight. "A very rare kid."

Pine Crest isn't a basketball factory. If anything it's a nerd factory. The Class of 2010 alone produced 18 national merit scholar finalists.

Before Knight arrived on campus, basketball was nothing more than a convenient extracurricular. The team had never sniffed a state title.

Knight not only toted the academic load with aplomb -- he carried an AP-loaded, weighted GPA of 4.3 out of high school and, while listed as a freshman, is technically a sophomore at Kentucky -- but he basically birthed a basketball program.

In his five years at Pine Crest (he started on the varsity as an eighth grader), the school won two state titles and competed for two more.

Yet as much time as he'd log in the gym, Knight never became basketball-centric. He possesses an inquisitiveness that isn't typically found among teenagers, let alone those whose free time is consumed by sport.

"He wants to know about the world around him and know about the world that's going to affect him," Beckerman said. "Listen to what I just said: He wants to know about the world that's going to affect him. If he asks questions about the financial world, it's because at some point it's going to matter to him."

A would-be architect or engineer if he had his druthers, Knight brings the same sort of brainpower to basketball. Like most high school point guards, he was used to being more of a scorer than a distributor, averaging 32 points in his high school career.

At Kentucky he's had to do both.

Oh, and he's had to play defense, which comes about as naturally to college rookies as ice skating comes to Arizonans.

He wasn't great at either to begin with, and Calipari isn't one to let that sort of thing go unnoticed. Hard on all his players, the coach said he was probably hardest on Knight, demanding that he worry more about running the team than finding his points.

His can be a downright wilting criticism, especially when partnered with what was by Kentucky standards a so-so season around mid-February.

Yet Knight was smart enough to understand what was going on and mature enough to handle it.

"There's always tough times," he said. "Every player has tough times and points when you've had enough, but you have to be able to push through it. You have to have tough skin and let some things go. You have to take some of that as motivation and just ignore the rest, and you have to know the difference, when to listen and when to move on."

So Knight simply did what he has always done: He worked. It is no coincidence that as Knight has figured out his role, Kentucky has figured out its game.

During the 10-game winning streak that has so far taken the Wildcats to an SEC tournament title and the Final Four, Knight is averaging 16.1 points as well as 4.5 assists, figuring out finally how to score and dish with equal success.

And a kid that Calipari said "never spoke" in high school has become a vocal, if not theatrical, leader for the Wildcats.

He may not say much, but when he does, he means it.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.