Walker rose up toward the basket, but instead of laying the ball in to tie the score, he flipped a pass to the corner for what turned out to be an errant three-point attempt. And with that, Davis had made a critical defensive play — negating a layup attempt — without ever touching the basketball.
“There has never been a shot-blocker like him,” Florida Coach Billy Donovan marveled.
Whether or not Davis adds to his season total of 154 blocked shots in the coming weeks, his mere presence on the court makes Kentucky the favorite to win the school’s first national title in 14 years. This Kentucky team, despite finishing the regular season 16-0 in SEC play, does not have the depth of the last great Kentucky team in 1996, but it has another rarity.
“Davis is a little bit different monster,” former Arkansas star Scotty Thurman said. “College basketball, since the days of Alonzo Mourning, has not had a shot blocker like this. Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing — he is in that class. You talk about the shots he’s blocked, how about the number of shots he has changed? A lot of guys don’t even think about shooting.”
Vanderbilt and Florida had some success against Davis in the SEC tournament. But because each school had played Kentucky twice during the regular season, each knew what it felt like — not just what scouting reports showed — to run an offense against Davis hovering in the paint. The teams that Kentucky will play in the tournament, for the most part, don’t have first-hand experience with how much vertical space Davis can cover.
Donovan said that a lot of offensive players assume Davis cannot block their shot. And that guessing game, Donovan said, usually leads to one thing: a blocked shot. In situation such as the one Walker faced on the layup attempt, Donovan said his guard was not afraid to shoot. He said Walker was simply aware of where Davis could be.
“As a coach, when you are preparing for Kentucky, you can talk about Davis and his shot-blocking ability,” Donovan added. “But it’s one of those things, unless you have played against it a couple times, it really can take you off-guard. Because you think you can get the ball up on the glass, you think you can get it over him, and that’s the worst thing.”
Donovan said he doesn’t think there is a player in the country who changes the dynamic of his team simply by being on the court. In an SEC quarterfinal loss to Kentucky, LSU center Justin Hamilton made just 1 of 12 field goal attempts. Afterward, Hamilton said “subconsciously you notice he is there and wind up missing a lot of easy shots.”
How do you manufacture points against the Wildcats if you can’t attack the basket? Some teams may try to draw Davis out to the perimeter. After a defensive switch, Walker did that on another occasion late in the SEC semifinal and had some separation from Davis by the three-point line. That led broadcaster Brad Nessler to remark, “If he’s going to shoot it over Davis, he needs to shoot it from 25 feet.”
One approach worked fairly well against the 220-pound Davis, who at 19 is particularly thin from the waist up: brute force. The Gators’ Patric Young said he was going to go right at Davis because he questioned Davis’ physicality. On several occasions, Young established deep post position, twice making short hook shots over Davis’ hand.
“You want to keep banging on him and stop him from jumping,” Vanderbilt forward Steve Tchiengang said.
In a Feb. 25 loss against Kentucky, Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli tried to maneuver around Davis with finesse moves. Didn’t work. On Sunday, Ezeli, who is 35 pounds heavier than Davis, scrapped that idea and “in my mind, I just caught the ball and said I was going to go dunk it every time. I really didn’t care.”
Davis said that Vanderbilt’s big men established such deep post position that “when you get it that deep, it’s very easy for them to score and hard for us to defend.”
What makes Davis a particular headache for opposing coaches is that it is difficult to get him off the court. For all of the times Davis has tried to block shots, he committed just 26 fouls in 16 regular season SEC games. He averages just 1.9 fouls per game. Recent skilled shot blockers such as Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet averaged at least 3.8 fouls per game.
“He does not foul,” Donovan said. “And that’s the thing that is impressive about him.”
Davis found himself in early foul trouble against Vanderbilt, which he said hurt his team because he had to sit for a few minutes while Vanderbilt players knew they could attack the basket more effectively.
About 30 minutes after Vanderbilt secured a significant upset by beating Kentucky on Sunday, Commodores Coach Kevin Stallings was still shaking his head over one Kentucky teenager, concluding: “He is the darndest thing I have ever seen.”