He charged down the right wing of the Georgia Dome court, sprinting toward the basket as Baylor's most ruthless defender, 6'7" senior forward Quincy Acy, tried to block his path. A little more than 11 minutes remained in the first half of Sunday's South Regional final in Atlanta, but this fast break had the feel of a tone-setting moment. Cupping the ball in his right hand as if he were showboating on the playground, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist took flight.
Soaring over Acy with startling ease, Kentucky's 6'7" freshman forward laid the ball in off the glass to give the Wildcats a 21--10 lead. For the No. 3--seeded Bears, this great leap over their leader was a spirit-crusher; Baylor wouldn't get closer than eight points as Kentucky, the tournament's top seed, won 82--70.
"Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is by far the best player in the open court in the country," says an SEC assistant coach who scouted Kentucky extensively this season. "He puts you in a position where you have to foul him as he attacks the rim. He's the key to Kentucky's transition offense, which is the key to all of their success."
In the Sweet 16, Indiana coach Tom Crean had instructed his defenders to lay off Kidd-Gilchrist in the Hoosiers' half-court defense to encourage him to shoot long-range jumpers. (He has shot only 26.0% from beyond the arc.) But the plan backfired; the Wildcats' forward consistently sliced through the lane, scoring a team-high 24 points.
At 18 years and six months Kidd-Gilchrist, who grew up in Somerdale, N.J., is the youngest player on this young team, but he has already endured a lifetime's worth of heartache. His father, Michael Gilchrist Sr., was shot and killed in 1996, when Michael Jr. was two. One of the boy's uncles, Darrin Kidd, became a father figure to him, but on Nov. 10, 2010—the day he signed his letter of intent to attend Kentucky—Kidd died of a heart attack despite his nephew's attempts to revive him. Last summer Michael Jr. changed his surname to honor both men. After that, "leaving home was very hard," says Kidd-Gilchrist, "but all of my teammates helped me through it."
After the nets were cut down in Atlanta, Kidd-Gilchrist, the region's Most Outstanding Player, led his team off the floor, waving to Big Blue Nation's legion of fans. He then disappeared into the locker room, and the engine that powers Kentucky finally cooled down. Still, he said softly in front of his locker, "I'm not satisfied. Can't wait until New Orleans."