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Sun, Feb 7, 2016

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Stacked and focused, Kentucky ready for Final Four spotlight


ATLANTA -- Everything you need to know about the 2012 Kentucky basketball team can be found in the locker of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Among the bags and hats and shoes and shirts was a framed photo taken at his uncle's wedding. Michael Gilchrist was about 10 years old when the photo was taken. Darren Kidd, the uncle, died last year on the day his nephew signed to go to Kentucky.

Last summer Michael Gilchrist added the name of his late uncle to his own in order to honor him every single day and every single game that he plays for the No. 1 Wildcats. And Michael Kidd-Gilchrist takes the photo everywhere he goes. Next stop: New Orleans.

On Sunday, MKG, as he has affectionately become known in the Big Blue Nation, scored 17 points in the first half and finished with 19 as the Wildcats beat Baylor 82-70 in the NCAA South Regional championship game. Kentucky (36-2), the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, advances to Saturday's Final Four in New Orleans where it will play Louisville, the West Regional champion.

Kidd-Gilchrist, the freshman from Somerdale, N.J., was named the Most Outstanding Player of the South Regional with 43 points in two games.

"I still can't believe it. It doesn't seem real yet," said Kidd-Gilchrist, who had 24 points Friday night against Indiana. "I can't believe that we're going to the Final Four.

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On a team loaded with stars that nevertheless puts the ego of stars on the back burner, Kidd-Gilchrist is Kentucky's most unselfish player. As Baylor was focused on another great freshman, Anthony Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist took the opportunity to hit six of his first seven shots as Kentucky turned a 10-5 deficit into a 21-10 lead with an overwhelming 16-0 run in the span of less than five minutes.

There were more than 30 minutes left to be played but it was over. Kentucky had delivered the message: The Wildcats are exactly what we thought they were -- the most talented, determined team in this tournament. And it's going to take a hell of an effort to keep them from cutting down the nets a week from Monday in New Orleans.

"After you lose a game like this the first thing you ask is: 'Are they what you thought they were?'" said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team lost in a regional championship game for the second time in three years. "Actually, Kentucky is better than I thought they were. We didn't play our best game but Kentucky had a lot to do with that. When we lost to Duke two years ago I thought Duke (which went on to win the national championship) was a great team. But this team is better."

The reason Kentucky, which beat Indiana 102-90 in Friday's regional semifinal here at the Georgia Dome, is such a juggernaut is simply this: John Calipari can take high school superstars, who are wired for selfishness by the system (not their fault, that's just the way it is) and make them believe in something greater than themselves. He makes them understand that the surest path to their ultimate goal, the NBA, is to guard people ferociously and to not care who gets the glory on any given night. He makes them believe in each other. And in today's basketball environment, that ain't easy.

It is significantly easier if you have players like Kidd-Gilchrist. Before the championship game of the SEC tournament in New Orleans, Kidd-Gilchrist thought teammate Darius Miller could use a lift. Miller had failed to score in Kentucky's first two tournament games against LSU and Florida. So Kidd-Gilchrist gave up his starting spot against Vanderbilt so that Miller, the senior, could start in his last SEC tournament game. Miller scored 16 but Vanderbilt won the game, handing Kentucky only its second loss this season. But the gesture spoke volumes.

"There is a reason why Anthony Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are projected to go 1-2 in the [NBA] Draft," Drew said. "Gilchrist is a man-child."

This Kentucky team is not without its flaws. Baylor was able to cut Kentucky's 20-point halftime lead back to 13 points in the second half when the Wildcats showed their youth and got a little sloppy.

"I pulled back on the reins a little bit trying to just get out of the gym," Calipari said. "And probably [that was] a mistake. So that's on me."

Davis came down hard on his left knee and looked a little gimpy at times in the second half. Still he finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Kidd-Gilchrist picked up two quick fouls in the second half and his minutes were limited. He fouled out with 2:38 left.

There were some teachable moments for Calipari as he prepares to take Kentucky to the 15th Final Four in its storied basketball history.

But those are just blips that do not overshadow a larger reality. When Kentucky is focused on the task at hand, the Wildcats will be difficult to beat. And we can certainly expect them to be more than focused to play their state rival next Saturday night in the Big Easy.

"It's a dream come true," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "We are really, really, looking forward to this."

One other note: On Dec. 31 Kidd-Gilchrist scored a career-high 24 points in a 69-62 nationally-televised victory.

The opponent? That would be the Louisville Cardinals.

I wonder how much sleep Rick Pitino will get this week?

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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