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As Louisville will attest, Kentucky's Kidd(-Gilchrist) is the man

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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was once the top-ranked 13-year-old player in the country, a uniquely long and skilled prospect featured in major metropolitan newspapers, a kid who spent parts of July hanging with LeBron James in Akron. I know because I saw him there. That's where I first met Kidd-Gilchrist -- at the LeBron James Skills Academy -- and where he first told me he would one day play for John Calipari.

All these years later, he's playing for John Calipari.

Man, oh man, is he ever playing for John Calipari.

"He carried us," said Kentucky wing Darius Miller. "He put the team on his back."

Kentucky beat Louisville on Saturday here at Rupp Arena.

The final score was 69-62.

Both teams missed twice as many shots as they made and combined for 70 free throws and 35 turnovers. So a beautiful display of basketball, this was not. But it was still a blast because a sellout crowd of 24,387 filled this historic building to watch rival programs separated by 80 miles -- and rival coaches separated by jealousy and genuine dislike -- face off on national television. A 13-time Grammy Award winner (Jay-Z), a Medal of Honor recipient (Dakota Meyer) and a Golden Globe nominee (Ashley Judd) were courtside, and you won't find many atmospheres better than this one on this New Year's Eve afternoon.

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And you won't find many performances better than the one Kidd-Gilchrist provided.

The 6-foot-7 forward finished with 24 points and 19 rebounds. He had three times as many offensive rebounds (six) as any Cardinal, and that he never stopped scrapping and banging and working is why Calipari left him in for 39 minutes. Why would you sub somebody who never tires or slows? And why would you sub somebody who's dominating on both ends of the court? And why would you sub somebody who relishes physical play when you're in a physical game?

"This is what I live for right here," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I've got a lot of heart. I'm built for this."

Consider the flex as proof.

It came with 3:41 remaining. Kentucky had a comfortable but not insurmountable lead ... until Kidd-Gilchrist grabbed another offensive rebound and converted another stickback despite being fouled by Kyle Kuric. The flex -- he looked just like Rick Rude -- came next. It was followed by a free throw that pushed UK's advantage to 61-50. The Cardinals never got closer than seven points. Jay-Z exited Rupp Arena carrying a Kidd-Gilchrist jersey.

"He had my jersey in his hands, so that's good," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I can't really explain the feeling."

Here's what I can't explain: Why so many recruiting analysts moved off Gilchrist as he got older, why he slipped from the top spot all the way to sixth in the high school Class of 2011, according to some nationally respected services. It never made sense because what made Gilchrist great -- good size for a wing and a motor that just didn't stop -- never went away. It didn't matter on the summer circuit if his team was up 20 or down 15, Kidd-Gilchrist was always relentless, which is why it wasn't surprising when he acknowledged after Saturday's win that he rarely looks at the scoreboard. He just plays. As hard as he can. Every possession. And yet he was almost nobody's No. 1 prospect by the time he graduated high school in New Jersey.

Duke's Austin Rivers was No. 1 at Rivals.com.

Kentucky's Anthony Davis was No. 1 at Scout.com.

Asked if that motivated him, Kidd-Gilchrist swore it didn't.

"But," he said, "I noticed it."

Now he's the one becoming impossible not to notice.

Terrence Jones was the preseason SEC Player of the Year and Davis will be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft, so it could be argued that Kidd-Gilchrist isn't even one of the top two players at UK. But that would be a silly argument because he's the freshman leader of this team, the person who organizes early workouts before practice. He leads with his mouth and with his actions, and, against Louisville, he led with points and rebounds and minutes played.

Is Kidd-Gilchrist the most heralded of Calipari's prospects?

No.

Is he the best NBA prospect?

No.

But he is Kentucky's most important player.

Jay-Z had his jersey in his hands.

Now MKG could be the reason Coach Cal gets to hold a championship trophy in his.


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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