ATLANTA - Kentucky coach John Calipari often brings up that the Wildcats' Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is among the youngest freshmen basketball players in the country. With a trip to the Final Four on the line Sunday in the NCAA South Region final, the game's youngest player could also be one of its most significant.
"I feel he's the heart and soul of their team offensively and defensively," said Baylor sophomore Perry Jones, whose team will face the Cats at 2:20 p.m.
Kidd-Gilchrist was born on Sept. 26, 1993, late in the academic calendar for a person of the high school graduating class of 2011, meaning that weeks into his freshman fall semester at UK he was still 17. By the time he's 19, he could be set to start an NBA training camp.
His entire basketball career, much of which Kidd-Gilchrist has been considered one of the nation's elite prospects, he's typically played against players in his same grade who were months and often more than a year older than him.
"(Facing older players) always happens," he said. "It's nothing new. I've proved myself."
Kidd-Gilchrist is young, but at 6 feet 7 and 232 pounds and bearing a competitive fire that it is arguably unmatched in college basketball, Kidd-Gilchrist plays a mature game. It's rooted in power, rebounding, defense, dribble penetration and effort.
"What I find remarkable is his demeanor and his mentality and the maturity and competitiveness of his game," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer said. "The fearlessness of it kind of belies his age."
On Sunday, he'll be the youngest freshman in the game; he's a year and 7 days younger than Baylor's Deuce Bello and 10 months younger than the Bears' Quincy Miller.
He's younger by about 11 months to Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer, seven to Marquis Teague and six to Anthony Davis.
"We always joke about that, talking about that he still should be in high school," UK's sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. "Whenever we're at a high school, telling him he should go enroll in class, making little jokes about how young he is. But he's a good person and a great teammate."
Jokes from his teammates aside, Kidd-Gilchrist is indeed younger than some of the nation's top players currently still in high school.
UCLA signee Kyle Anderson, the nation's No. 2 player in the 2012 class and a former rival of Kidd-Gilchrist's from his prep days in New Jersey, is six days older than Kidd-Gilchrist. Michigan recruit Mitch McGary, the No. 5 prospect in 2012 who attends Brewster Academy prep school in New Hampshire, will be 20 in June - three months before Kidd-Gilchrist turns 19.
Shabazz Muhammad, the nation's No. 1 senior, is two months younger than Kidd-Gilchrist.
Among some of the nation's other highly regarded college freshmen, No. 1 2011 prospect Austin Rivers is 13 months older than Kidd-Gilchrist. Syracuse post player Rakeem Christmas, who was Kidd-Gilchrist's travel-club teammate in high school, turned 20 in December, about two months after Kidd-Gilchrist's 18th birthday.
His youth relative to his competition has not hindered Kidd-Gilchrist, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference player, an All-America candidate and projected high lottery pick in the NBA draft.
"I always knew he was a younger kid, so it's amazing some of the things he does, that he's so mature for how old he is," said Teague, who's played for years with Kidd-Gilchrist in summer leagues and USA Basketball. "... He plays harder than anyone else I've ever seen play or anyone I've had the chance to play with. It's just fun watching him."
His 24 points and 10 rebounds were a key in pushing Kentucky past Indiana 102-90 in Friday's regional semifinal. Ten Hoosiers saw action in that game, all of whom were at least 11 months older than Kidd-Gilchrist.
"Offensively it looks like he can't be stopped, from what I've been seeing in the games," Baylor's Jones said. "He doesn't settle for anything. He gets to the hole when he wants to. He rebounds like a monster, like a mad man. We just need to keep him off the glass more than anybody. He is the heart and soul of the team, and he can do whatever he wants."
Perry Jones said he's read about and is impressed by Kidd-Gilchrist's decision last summer to officially add "Kidd" to his last name as a way to pay tribute to his late uncle Darrin Kidd, whom Kidd-Gilchrist considered a mentor. Kidd-Gilchrist found Darrin Kidd dead of a heart attack in the fall of 2010 on the morning he signed his letter of intent to UK.
"It's like he's playing with a fire, like he's playing to get somewhere, like he's playing for something, for somebody," Jones said. "And I feel like it's the 'Kidd' on the back of his jersey that he's playing for.
"... If somebody's got something like that driving them, they're not going to be stopped, especially easily. That's the probably going to be the hardest part of the game is him."
Jones, when told by a reporter that Kidd-Gilchrist is among the youngest freshmen in the country, said that makes his accomplishments even more impressive.
"When you're fighting for something, no matter what age you are, it's going to turn out good, especially in his case," Jones said. "He's a strong kid, and I feel like he's making (his late uncle) proud right now."
Being younger than the players he's faced has been a challenge Kidd-Gilchrist has welcomed, Teague said.
"He doesn't back down from anyone," Teague said. "... He always gives it everything he's got. He's a superstar type man."
ESPN.com reported on Thursday, citing anonymous sources, that Kidd-Gilchrist has already made up his mind to turn pro after this season. Kidd-Gilchrist said on Friday night that the report isn't true, and he's made no such decision at this point.
Regardless of whether or not he returns to UK, he's projected as a top-five draft pick when he chooses to enter the NBA.
Meyer said that because Kidd-Gilchrist is a physically mature wing player, his age relative to other freshmen is not as important as it might be if he were an interior player who was still growing into his body and required much more physical strength.
He said it could be significant if it means Kidd-Gilchrist can begin the regimented work of shooting and skill development of an NBA player at an earlier age.
"It just means you're going to have more of a great thing, whoever's got him," Meyer said. "He's already a man, regardless of his age, as far as how he plays basketball. I don't know if he's going to be a better shooter in five years, whether he's 18 now or 21 now, but it certainly doesn't hurt to be younger, and you're looking at more of a good thing being around longer."
Kidd-Gilchrist downplayed the significance of being younger than most everyone he plays.
"I don't really think about it anymore," he said. "It's just normal for me now. If I'm young, I'm young; so what?"
Prepping for his 37th and 38th games of the season this weekend, he leaned back in his locker room at the Georgia Dome this week, rubbing his chest and shoulders and laughed.
Youth is not being wasted on this guy.
"I'm still getting old, don't get me wrong," he said. "I'm aching and stuff like that. But (facing older players) is just something I've dealt with throughout my life."