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.”