ATLANTA — By the time Kentucky’s players walked off the Georgia Dome court with a 20-point halftime lead, the countdown to a highly anticipated Final Four matchup between two bitter instate rivals had already begun.
The top-seeded Wildcats’ run to a second consecutive berth in the Final Four, secured with an overwhelming 82-70 win over third-seeded Baylor on Sunday, was viewed almost as an inevitability since the start of the season because Coach John Calipari stocked his roster with six players who likely will have careers in the NBA.
More surprising was the late-season run made by Louisville, a No. 4 seed in the West Region that won the Big East tournament title, upset top-seeded Michigan State and earned a trip to the Final Four by beating Florida on Saturday.
So come next Saturday night in New Orleans, Kentucky and Louisville, Calipari and Rick Pitino, and tens of thousands of basketball-crazed fans of schools just 77 miles apart will descend upon the French Quarter.
Standing outside Kentucky’s locker room Sunday, Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart said: “For the fans and [members of] the media, it will be a heavy, heavy week of a lot of print, a lot of talking. You just have to keep your wits about you.”
For Kentucky, anything short of a national title will be unacceptable to the legions of blue-clad fans who turned Sunday’s South Region final into a virtual home game. Calipari has said that Kentucky is the only NCAA tournament team not allowed to lose this season. And a national semifinal against Louisville will only add to the pressure on the Wildcats, who last won the NCAA title in 1998.
“The drama of the game will be on the staff,” Calipari said. “I don’t have many Kentucky players on my team. They don’t know all that stuff. I’ll tell them: ‘Get off the message boards, don’t worry about the Twitter and the Facebook. Don’t buy into it.’ ”
Calipari characterized his relationship with Pitino as “fine.” When asked if he is a friend or an acquaintance of Pitino, Calipari paused before saying “friendly acquaintances,” a response that drew laughter from the reporters at the news conference.
It marked a lighthearted ending to a day that included just one scare for the Wildcats, who held their collective breath when Anthony Davis, the 6-foot-10 shot-blocking wunderkind, went down hard early in the second half, clutching his left knee in agony.
Davis had driven to the basket when he appeared to bang knees with Baylor’s Perry Jones III. After limping to the bench, Davis grimaced when he tried to flex his leg with the help of a trainer.
After a few minutes, the crowd roared when Davis headed to the scorer’s table to check back into the game. Davis, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, played much of the remainder of the second half, looking more at ease as the game wore on.
Afterwards, Davis said he is not concerned that his knee will feel worse Monday, vowing that “I am not going to sit out.”
The Wildcats were barely threatened by a Baylor team making its second Elite Eight appearance in three seasons with an assortment of players who could match the Wildcats in athleticism.
There was Kentucky’s 18-year-old Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, named the most outstanding player of the South Region, making 6 of 7 field goal attempts in the first half, scoring as many points as the entire Baylor team (17) in the game’s first 16 minutes.
There was Terrence Jones, who returned to school because the Wildcats fell short of a national championship last season, distributing the ball like a 6-9 point guard in the first half, collecting nearly as many assists (six) as the entire Baylor team.
And finally, there was Davis catching and converting lob passes into dunks and making outside jump shots that helped swell the Wildcats’ lead to 22 points.
“The goal was to allow no dunks,” Baylor Coach Scott Drew said. “I think that was out the window four seconds into the game.”
Kentucky used a 16-0 first-half run to seize control of the game. Then the Wildcats made free throws — 30 of 44 attempts in all — to keep the Bears behind by double digits through the second half.
Now on to Calipari’s fourth Final Four. The Kentucky coach said he would probably be more concerned about distractions leading up to the Louisville game if his roster was filled with players from the state.
“I’ve said it all along, we play them one time a year and we’re not in the same league. Why do you guys get all worked up?” Calipari said. “And then [fans] go crazy: ‘Are you out of your mind?’ It’s a ballgame. When do we play? Friday? Saturday? When is the game?”