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March 24, 2012

Davis leads Kentucky to brink of Final Four

ATLANTA - Sometimes, Anthony Davis needs a different sort of block.

There are times when Kentucky's freshman shot-blocking sensation - whose Wildcats face Baylor in Sunday's NCAA Tournament South Regional Final at the Georgia Dome - needs to get away from it all.

When the 6-foot-10 Davis needs to swat away on-court pressures, when he needs to turn away the interview requests and tune out the posters and billboards and all that unibrow-themed merchandise, he picks up a pencil and he starts to sketch.

"When you're drawing, you really don't think about anything else but what you're doing," Davis said Saturday. "You just get your mind off everything and just get in a calm mindset and just relax."

Davis draws whatever comes to mind; mostly cartoon characters. He's designed a tattoo for teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who never actually got the thing. He takes an art class, UK guard Marquis Teague said.

It's all part of a hobby Davis took up last year, when he learned to sketch from an uncle who'd taken art classes and impressed Davis with drawings of rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur.

Davis' freshman season has progressed far better than he could have drawn it up. The Chicago native - who already has won the Oscar Robertson and Adolph Rupp awards as college basketball's national Player of the Year - admits he arrived in Lexington with relatively low expectations.

He figured he'd block a couple shots a game, throw down a few dunks. He thought he'd be a part of a good Kentucky team with a chance to win an NCAA title.

Instead, Davis has emerged as the breakout star for the Wildcats (35-2), the literal poster child for Kentucky's season. He leads Kentucky in scoring (14.2 points per game) and rebounding (10.1). His 169 blocked shots are a school record, and he's one swat shy of tying a single-season Southeastern Conference mark.

His likeness, wide wingspan looming, is on a billboard in New Orleans, site of the Final Four Kentucky hopes to reach with a win against Baylor on Sunday. A poster bearing the same image caused a stir on eBay after UK gave it away at a game this season.

In less than three years, Davis has grown from a little-known 6-foot-3 guard into a centerpiece.

That's fine by his Kentucky teammates, and perhaps their acceptance of Davis' emergence says something about why the Wildcats are a win away from a second straight Final Four.

"We just like each other too much for any of that (jealousy) and are proud of each other's success," sophomore Terrence Jones said. "We're just happy for one another. That should be every team."

It's not every team.

"I think it's very rare," Davis said. "A lot of teams are usually jealous of someone who's doing well or gets all the attention from the media or whatever the case may be. But my team just supports you."

Kentucky is stocked with talent. Seven different players have led the Wildcats in scoring this season. Six different players have scored at least 24 points in a game.

But a team of former high school stars and future NBA draft picks has accepted that Davis is going to rack up the headlines and the hardware, and the fact that the Wildcats are wired that way is a part of their success.

"The season's a long season, and these guys have figured out that, if I sacrifice for my teammate, if I care about my team more than myself, it seems like I benefit the most," UK coach John Calipari said. "I think that's every guy here."

As balanced as the Wildcats are, Davis is the key cog. His shot-blocking prowess alters offensive game plans. His offensive versatility helps UK click.

But in Baylor (30-7), Davis and Kentucky will face quite literally one of their tallest challenges yet. The Bears start a front line of 6-foot-11 Perry Jones III, 6-10 Quincy Miller and 6-7 Quincy Acy, all long, athletic forwards who are aggressive at the rim.

"We've gone against great shot blockers before," Acy said. "Obviously, he's the best in the NCAA, but we can't shy away from him. We have to attack."

Teams have been attacking Davis most of the season. He's welcomed it.

Not so long ago, Davis was a 6-3 guard at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago. By now, the story of his growth spurt is college basketball legend. He shot up to 6-10, growing his way out of more pants and shoes than he cares to count.

"I had to get a new bed," Davis said. "My feet were hanging off the bed. I really owe (my parents) a lot of money."

Soon enough, Davis will be able to pay it back with interest. Though he said he hasn't made a decision about his basketball future, Davis is the presumptive No. 1 pick in the June NBA Draft.

But even as Davis' stature and skills expanded, his expectations stayed grounded.

"How I'm playing now, I never thought of being this successful in college," Davis said.

Nor did he expect the notoriety that would come along with his growing game.

You can scarcely walk a street in Lexington without seeing some representation of Davis' characteristic eyebrows, which come together at the bridge of his nose to form a "unibrow" that's become a source of derision for opposing fans. For Davis, it's almost a point of pride.

There are t-shirts and license plates with "Bow to the Brow" and "Brow Down" slogans. The Wildcat mascot donned a unibrow late in the season. Fans often paste fake ones to their foreheads in a salute to Davis.

"It doesn't bother me at all," Davis said. "I kind of embrace it."

And the expansion of Davis' brand seems not to have been a sore spot for his teammates. Even as Davis has broken out, Kentucky has stuck together.

"He deserves everything he gets, so we understand," Teague said. "It's not a problem. He goes out there and every game and plays his heart out. He's one of the biggest reasons for all our success."

Now Davis wants to be a key reason Kentucky reaches the Final Four.

He's aware of the challenge that lies ahead in Baylor. But Davis has set a goal of leading his team to a national championship. Sunday's game is a critical step.

Davis is hoping he can draw up something special.

"To make it to the Final Four as a freshman is going to be great," Davis said. "I just can't wait, if we win the game, to go down there. If not, I'll know we left it all on the court and played our hardest and had a great season."

Game Information

Kentucky vs. Baylor
March 25, 2:20 p.m.
Georgia Dome

Radio: UK IMG Network
Series: Kentucky leads 6-0
Last Meeting: Kentucky won 80-46 on Dec. 8, 1979, in Lexington.

No. 1 Kentucky (35-2, 16-0 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (502-152; 99-14 at Kentucky)
Baylor (30-7, 12-6 Big 12)
Coach: Scott Drew (177-134; 157-123 at Baylor)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Marquis Teague Fr. 6-2/189 10.0 2.5
G Doron Lamb So. 6-4/210 13.6 2.8
F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Fr. 6-7/232 11.8 7.6
F Terrence Jones So. 6-9/252 12.6 7.1
F Anthony Davis Fr. 6-10/220 14.2 10.1
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Pierre Jackson Jr. 5-10/180 13.6 2.9
G Brady Heslip So. 6-2/180 10.4 1.4
F Quincy Miller Fr. 6-10/210 11.0 4.9
F Quincy Acy Sr. 6-7/235 11.5 7.2
F Perry Jones III So. 6-11/235 13.4 7.7

Key Storylines

Above the Rim
There might not be a better collection of long, athletic basketball players on a court in this NCAA Tournament than there will be at the Georgia Dome on Sunday. Baylor's Quincy Acy has 69 dunks this season. UK's Anthony Davis has 93. The Wildcats have blocked an NCAA-record 317 shots in 2011-12, and the Bears have swatted 173. "We're basically the same team," Baylor's Quincy Miller said. "We basically have the same caliber athletes."

Pressure Cooker
The pressure's on Kentucky in Sunday's matchup. Not only are the Wildcats the prohibitive favorite to win the NCAA title, but rival Louisville already has punched a ticket to the Final Four. Baylor, meanwhile, wasn't expected to reach the Regional Final. "We're still on the rise, and pretty much throughout this tournament we've been picked to lose," Acy said. "It's nothing new."

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