NEW ORLEANS — For the first time all night, it was hard to find him. Amidst all the exploding confetti, media swarm and deliriously celebrating teammates, finally young Anthony Davis seemed to simply vanish into the wonderful swirl of a crazed national championship postgame celebration.
The giant scoreboard that hung high above the elevated Superdome court was glowing with the news that the Kentucky Wildcats were the new NCAA national champs after Monday night’s never-in-doubt 67-59 victory over the Kansas Jayhawks, and Wildcats assistant Rod Strickland was on his tiptoes searching for Davis in all this wonderful madness.
“Hmmm, where is that tall drink of water anyway?” Strickland wondered.
This is just how it was all night for the vanquished Jayhawks, who spent the entire game wondering where Davis was and flinching and short-arming shots as they anticipated his presence.
You can scour the record books of the Final Four and never find quite a championship performance like the one Davis put together Monday night.
“I love how he was one for 10 (from the floor) and you guys said he was the biggest factor in the game,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. Calipari wasn’t criticizing the media vote that gave Davis the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award after he scored only six points and made but one shot in a national championship game. He was confirming our good judgment.
The only thing that could have made this better is if Davis had actually not made a shot at all. Now that would have been something, wouldn’t it? The box score will say six points, 16 rebounds, five assists, six blocked shots and three steals. But the box score still doesn’t say enough about perhaps the most unusual great performance in the history of the Final Four, where a player could so completely control the outcome of a ballgame while making only one shot all night.
How do you end up as the tournament’s most outstanding player even though you didn’t score a point until deep into the second half? Well, you do it by being that rare 6-foot-11 freshman who understands that the art of defensive intimidation is a thing of basketball beauty, not quite as aesthetically pleasing as a hang-gliding dunk, but far more effective. While the stat sheet credits Davis with six blocked shots and three steals, there is no category on the stat sheet that properly credits Davis for maybe a dozen more shots that went up into the atmosphere without a prayer of going in.
It was one of the most unusual dominating individual performances I’ve ever seen at a Final Four. It was the sort of show that may not make the highlight film Top 10, but will go down as the sort of brilliant performance that every basketball wiseguy in the world will regard in its proper light. Davis owned this championship weekend in a way that would make Bill Russell proud. The moment he stepped on the floor, he was a game changer.
The scoreboard says it was somewhat of a close game. It never really was.
A whole lot had to go right for the Big 12 champion Jayhawks to win this game, and none of it happened. They didn’t shoot well, rebound well or defend well.
Even when they managed to edge closer on the scoreboard, it never felt like they had a chance. No matter what Kansas tried to do, it never seemed like enough. The most successful script for the season for the Jayhawks had always been to put the ball in the hands of their talented All-America forward Thomas Robinson in point-blank range of the hoop and let him do his thing.
On Monday night, that script didn’t work too well because of the omnipresent Davis lurking in the lane.
Here’s all you need to know about why Davis is college basketball’s most gifted player. He can influence every shot, every play, every movement on the floor simply by lurking around the rim like 6-foot-11 condor. There was a time when it looked like he was on his way to registering a triple double without scoring a basket the way he was grabbing every rebound, blocking so many shots and even dumping off passes to his teammates.
There was a series in the first half where Robinson did everything you’re supposed to do to score in the low post and came away with nothing, and it was all because of Anthony Davis. Robinson got the ball deep in the left post with UK forward Terrence Jones on his hip. Robinson took a textbook drop step, pirouetted into the lane and put up a hook over the 6-foot-9 Jones and it was still swatted away like a bothersome fly by Davis. He got it right back on the next possession in the same spot. This time Robinson did a double pivot spin, fake left, spin right, another textbook hook shot. Splat. Wiped out again by Davis.
With a little more than five minutes left in the first half, national player of the year Davis hadn’t scored, but Kentucky was still up by 34-19 and there wasn’t a single soul in the Dome who didn’t feel his presence. By halftime, it was 41-27 Kentucky, and Davis had nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks and probably six or seven more subtle misdirections when KU players seemed to flinch the moment they got in the lane.
Davis was controlling the game without making a single basket in much the same way a young Bill Russell could do without paying much attention to his scoring average. Robinson is a first-team All-America, the Big 12 player of the year and was a finalist for every national player of the year award, too. Yet he missed eight of his first 11 shots from the floor and the only damage he did offensively was when Davis was sitting on the sidelines catching his breath or replacing a contact lens.
I don’t know what is next for Davis. Will he go off to the pros this year as a one-and-done flash across the college basketball landscape? Or will he do the absolute unexpected and decide that the NBA millions can wait for another year as he builds his lanky body up more to better prepare him for the far more grueling wars that are sure to come in the pros?
I suspect the money will be too much to resist. But the one thing that we know about Anthony Davis is that with him you never see his next move coming.