LEXINGTON, Ky. – John Calipari said it, repeated it, then said it again. He did everything but hire an airplane to circle Rupp Arena towing a banner with the following message:
The annual rivalry game with Louisville was going to be a push-shove-slapfest. It was going to be physical to the extreme.
This is nothing new from Calipari, who for years has delighted in spreading that gospel before he faces his dear friend Rick Pitino. The reasoning is twofold: You never know when the officials might be listening, and you always know that Pitino will be listening. Insinuating that his Cardinals get away with voluminous fouling will tick off Pitino. And ticking off Pitino is something Calipari keeps on his daily to-do list.
But the message also was a call to action for Calipari's best player, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That's right, his best player. Center Anthony Davis is a wonderful talent and Kentucky's best pro prospect, but the 6-foot-7 freshman swingman from New Jersey is absolutely the most impactful Wildcat 14 games into this season.
Especially in a push-shove-slapfest, which this turned out to be. There were 52 fouls called and 70 free throws attempted in a heated Rupp Arena – and Calipari got a technical foul while arguing that not enough fouls were being called. Kidd-Gilchrist thrived in the middle of it, playing 39 hard-edged minutes and racking up 24 points and 19 rebounds.
"I'm built for this," he said after Kentucky's 69-62 victory. "I just love the challenge. – I've always been that way. I've got a lot of heart."
Heart, wingspan, hustle and a smoothing out of his sporadic shooting touch made Kidd-Gilchrist the star of the show Saturday. Six of his rebounds came on the offensive end. In the middle of the first half, he raced downcourt to contest what looked like a runaway layup for Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, forcing the 6-footer to reconsider and throw the ball away. Kidd-Gilchrist also hit two 3-pointers, his first in four games.
Davis dominated the second half, recording 18 points, six rebounds, five blocks and two steals in the final 20 minutes. With Darius Miller, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague and Terrence Jones combining to commit 17 turnovers and go a brutal 5-of-32 from the field, Calipari's two most-touted freshmen staved off outmanned Louisville's upset bid.
But it was Kidd-Gilchrist who delivered for the full, ferocious, foul-plagued 40. He's not just a fan favorite but a celebrity favorite as well, with rapper/NBA owner/friend of Worldwide Wes Jay-Z sitting courtside Saturday with one of his No. 14 jerseys in his hands.
[Recap: Kentucky 69, Louisville 62]
"He wasn't bothered as much as some of the other players by the physical play," Calipari said. "He almost relished it and just went after it, and that's why he played the way he did. … He was vicious today."
If this was going to be a hard-knocking game, that was fine with MKG. He is a magna cum laude graduate of the school of hard knocks.
He has worked hard to overcome a childhood stutter. He grew up without a father, who was killed when Michael was 2 years old. His uncle, Darrin Kidd, died on the day Michael was going to sign his letter-of-intent to Kentucky; months later, he added "Kidd" to his name.
"I struggled," Kidd-Gilchrist said.
His constant companion during the struggle was his mother, Cindy Richardson. When she wound up in the hospital before Christmas with an undisclosed ailment, Michael went to be with her. He spent one night with her in the hospital, "crying my eyes out." He said he didn't want to leave her and return to Lexington, but he did after Christmas.
Cindy Richardson was released from the hospital and actually made it to Rupp on Saturday afternoon for the game. Friday night, Michael again spent the night with her.
"She's the world to me," he said.
They talked Friday night about life, but not much about the game that would be played the next day at high noon. It is an all-consuming game to the fans, a year-round topic of discussion and dissension. To a freshman from Jersey, it was just another chance to play his heart out.
"I don't know nothing about this rivalry," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I just wanted to win the game."
His will to win is considerable, and has been the driving force for Kentucky this season. Despite being the youngest player on the team and possessing what he says is a shy personality, Kidd-Gilchrist initiated a team "Breakfast Club" – players getting shots up in the morning before class at UK's practice facility. Before long, membership in the Breakfast Club had grown to about eight players.
What would motivate a freshman to speak up and cajole his older teammates into pre-dawn voluntary workouts?
"I wanted to be the best," Kidd-Gilchrist said, "and this team is something special."
Kentucky has special parts that are on the path to becoming a special whole, but the process is far from complete.
The Wildcats labored against Louisville's pressure defense – and truth be told, so will much of the Big East – with Miller committing a ghastly eight turnovers. Calipari declared afterward that Teague is "still not my point guard yet" because he's not running the show the way the coach wants him to. Lamb was in the doghouse Saturday after one of his worst games, and he is probably the player Calipari was referring to as having dropped out of the Breakfast Club.
"We had one guy who stopped about a week and a half ago, and it showed today, how he played," Calipari said.
But Calipari defended Jones, who hasn't done much of anything since the first half against North Carolina on Dec. 3. He was scoreless in the second half against the Tar Heels and followed that up with a four-point, six-turnover game at Indiana, then dislocated a finger. A guy who was averaging 15 points has averaged just 3.8 points over his past four outings.
Still, those would qualify as first-world problems compared to what ails Louisville. This game illustrated the gulf in talent between the programs.
Pitino is one of the great offensive coaches in college basketball history, but his team cannot score.
Leading scorer Kyle Kuric cannot create off the dribble, so Kentucky never left him to help defensively. Result: two points and just four shots. Point guard Siva, the driving engine of the Cardinals last season as they charged into the top 10, has lost all confidence shooting the ball; he has missed his past 10 3-pointers over four games, including four Saturday.
Louisville's unlikely Lone Ranger has been Russ Smith, a three-star recruit who looked like he might leave the team after being buried on the bench last season as a freshman. Now, he's indispensible. Smith scored a career-high 30 points against the Wildcats, the only Cardinal in double figures.
"If coach tells me to keep shooting," Smith said, "I will listen."
Pitino has to tell him to keep shooting because the other options are limited. And when your offense is relying this heavily on a 6-foot, 160-pound former bench jockey, you have issues.
Kentucky has no such limitations. There is talent everywhere.
But make no mistake about the best Wildcat to date. It's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and the tougher the game, the better he plays.
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