Devin Booker is shooting 16 of 21 (76.2 percent) from 3-point range in his last five games. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The numbers don't even seem real.
Over his last five games, Devin Booker has missed just five times in 21 3-point attempts. Twice during the month-long hot streak, he's won Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors, including this week.
Kenny Payne has been on the sideline for every one of those 16 makes, but he's not willing to say Booker has reached his shooting ceiling.
"I think he's hot, but I think he has more in the tank," UK's associate head coach said with a smile. "I'd like to see him be a little bit hotter."
Told Booker is shooting better than 76 percent, as if to suggest he can't do any better, Payne didn't bat an eye.
"Let's get to 85," said Payne, his smile even bigger this time.
Of course, expecting the smooth guard to shoot any better from the outside than he has been is probably unrealistic, but the notion that Payne would even think to say it speaks to Booker's ability.
"He's willing to take any shot we need him to take," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "We all feel like (his shot) is going in any time he puts the ball in the air. One of those things about Devin Booker is he's just a flat-out shooter. He's a flat-out shooter and a flat-out scorer. Anytime you give him the ball it feels like two or three points are going to be put on the board at any given time."
Booker's hot streak has bumped his 3-point shooting percentage on the season to .500, which would tie him for fourth nationally if he wasn't just shy of the 2.5 makes per game needed to qualify for the NCAA leaderboard. Considering he was shooting 35.9 percent a month ago and 1 of 11 through his first three games, that's all the more impressive.
"He's worked so hard," Payne said. "From the day one that he walked into this program to today, he's gotten so much better. He's playing with unbelievable confidence. If you give him an inch he can shoot the ball."
Add in Booker's 47.6-percent shooting from inside the arc and 83.3 percent from the line and it should come as no surprise that he ranks 13th nationally in offensive rating according to kenpom.com entering a matchup with Missouri (7-8, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
It's a game, by the way, that Payne says will mean a little more to Booker.
"His father's one of the best players to ever play at Missouri," Payne said. "Kid has spent a lot of time up there. This will be a rivalry game for him."
Booker's father, Melvin, was the Big Eight Player of the Year and a first-team All-American in leading the Tigers to an unbeaten conference regular-season record and the Elite Eight in 1994.
"Devin's a competitor," Towns said. "He's always been a competitor, so I just see him being very energized for this game."
Booker was plenty energized in his last game even without the added edge of playing his dad's team, playing a career-high 35 minutes and scoring 18 points as No. 1 UK moved to 15-0 with a double-overtime win at Texas A&M. In a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds, Booker made big play after big play.
"Well, you know what was great for him last game: It's the first time he has been in late and he really performed," John Calipari said. "He attacked, he didn't settle for jumpers, made his free throws. Broke down defensively, but we all did in that game, the last one. But we wouldn't have been in the game if he didn't make shots in the first half."
The game was UK's third in a row decided by single digits after the Wildcats blitzed through their first 12 games without a single such outing, to which Coach Cal said "enough is enough." He knows similar battles await the Cats in conference play no matter what he says, but he is asking some open-ended questions to push his team back toward the form that had experts talking about an unbeaten regular season as if it was closer to a likelihood than a possibility.
"Have we lost our edge?" Calipari said. "Have we lost our swagger? Have we lost a little bit of our focus? And then if we have, what was it? What was our swag about? What was our focus about? What was our edge? What gave us an edge?"
To that end, Calipari held individual meetings on Monday followed by a team meeting. Afterward, Payne suggested that lost edge is mostly to do with energy and focus on the defensive end.
"We've gotta get that back," Payne said. "I think if you look around every media outlet, every newspaper article is Kentucky basketball. People are coming to play against us, they're playing hard against us. That should intensify us, not make us go backwards."
So far, Booker is responding to the challenge in kind, though Payne says even he has room for improvement.
"Like to see him put it on the floor a little bit more, because he's capable," Payne said. "But what can you say about a kid with a stroke like that? He's a threat no matter where he is on the floor."
John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday to revisit the first week of conference play and look ahead to a Tuesday matchup with Missouri. Check out everything he had to say, as well as quotes from Missouri's Kim Anderson. Calipari
On this week's games ... "I think both teams are playing well. Missouri had a great win at home (against LSU) and really played well on the road and obviously Alabama is doing what they always do. They're playing great defense and holding people to low numbers and playing a physical game. They'll be two hard games for us."
On what Devin Booker has provided ... "Well, you know what was great for him last game: It's the first time he has been in late and he really performed. He attacked, he didn't settle for jumpers, made his free throws. Broke down defensively, but we all did in that game, the last one. But we wouldn't have been in the game if he didn't make shots in the first half."
On the value of playing two close games ... "Well, I've said all along that you don't want to go through a season where you're never in a close game because you don't learn about your team. You need to be down 10 or 12 and see how you respond and you need to be in overtime games where they need to really lock down and be efficient offensively and make free throws or create good shots. Some eyes were opened. Trey Lyles making free throws. Dakari (Johnson) making free throws and coming up with huge rebounds. You know, the way Devin played down the stretch really showed some things. But enough is enough. We had enough of these games now. Let's get some games that are a little bit easier for us, but I don't think we'll have any. I think every game we play is someone's Super Bowl. They're going to play out of their minds. The kid from Mississippi had cramps and says that you can't have cramps, not at the biggest moment of your life. Like, what? The biggest moment of your life? But that's how guys feel playing against us and that's what I'm trying to tell our team. If you don't play with desperation and they do, you're losing."
On whether his team was affected by the unbeaten talk ... "No, but one of the things we're addressing today - and I just got done with individual meetings and we're going to have a great team meeting here in a little bit after I'm done and show a little tape and come back this afternoon and practice - but have we lost our edge? Have we lost our swagger? Have we lost a little bit of our focus? And then if we have, what was it? What was our swag about? What was our focus about? What was our edge? What gave us an edge? And then the question becomes, how do we get it back? If we lost it, what were reasons we could have lost it? And it's not like we're totally--we're still winning tough games and we're fighting like crazy. It's just that we're not exactly where we were and it's all good because I don't want us to be like it's March right now. It's too early to be like it's March. It isn't. One of the things we talked about: Are individuals feeling something they shouldn't be feeling? So we got a lot of things working. And it's crazy. Every team right now has issues in the country. Every team. Every team's working through something. All I'll tell you is I'm happy I'm coaching this team. I believe I have the best team in the country with the best players. So we got some things to figure out. We'll do it together."
On moving Tyler Ulis to the blue platoon ... "No. No, we're still, I'm good. The thing I would tell all of our guys - and what we talked about today - I believe in all of them. Now, if there's any reason you're not thinking right, because they're all talented. The things we're asking them to do, they can do. But, no. We have a good group of kids, man. I'm telling you, great kids. They've all stepped up at different times. They've all played bad at times, yet the team covered for them. It was like the game vs. Mississippi. I couldn't have Tyler in at the end if we wanted to win the game. He couldn't be in. I think everybody is watching spots of this, spots of that, I'm watching the full body of work. I'm fine with where our team is."
On the Missouri Tigers ... "They lost a lot. You would think they wouldn't be this confident, but their big man is playing well. Their wings are competing, their guards are playing great in pick-and-rolls and doing things they have to do. They're excited about league play. You can see the fight they have. They're not surrendering, they don't have it in their bones. They're just going to play. It's going to be a tough opponent for us."
Missouri head coach Kim Anderson
Opening statement ... "Good morning. We had a much needed win on (Thursday) against LSU. Obviously, a quality win for us and something we had struggled early on - we have played better lately - especially against some good teams, Illinois, Oklahoma State, we weren't able to get over the hump. Then in this game we were able to execute and should have probably won the game in regulation, (Keith) Hornsby makes a great shot for LSU. We miss a good shot to win it in regulation, and then go into overtime. I was really proud of our guys. We have been in this situation a couple times, and as I said earlier, we haven't been able to get over the hump. We got over it against LSU.
"Then the other night when we played Auburn; great game. I thought we started off pretty well. We handled the ball pretty well against them. We made some shots and they had a great performance from (Cinmeon) Bowers. They shot the ball better from 3 than they had been, which was something that we obviously didn't plan on. Then they did a great job of rebounding. Bowers I think was a force, especially at the end of the game. He made some plays, got some boards for them. (Jordon) Granger hits a big 3 there right down the stretch that basically put them out of reach a little bit.
"I think we remain a team still trying to find itself completely, but we've gotten a lot better. Our young guys are playing better. They're playing with more confidence, and the LSU game gave us that confidence - gave us some confidence. Hopefully we can carry that over now through the rest of the season.
"We know we have a tremendously tough game tomorrow night against Kentucky, the best team in the country. I'm hopeful that what we have learned here in the past week in the SEC will carry over and we can play well."
On facing Kentucky with UK coming off a couple close games ... "Well, I wish they hadn't had a couple of close games to be quite candid with you. But I think that what we face is certainly a team that has so many different weapons. They're very deep, they're big, they're long. The thing that most impresses me about Kentucky, other than all the things I just said, is when they don't play great, they still find ways to win. They did that Saturday against (Texas) A&M. That's the most impressive thing to me about Kentucky. We all know they have good players and they're very well coached and they have a great fanbase.
Going through the league undefeated takes - it was a long time ago when it happened here. I think other than the skill and the talent, it takes a little bit of luck. I can remember in the situation we had here at Missouri in '94 maybe it was, Eric Piatkowski shot a ball - it was a game to go to 14-0. He shot a ball and to this day I swear the ball was in and somebody punched it out of the net. So, it takes some luck, but they're so well coached and they're so good that the most impressive thing for me is they find ways to win even when they're not playing great."
On the play of Keanau Post and the challenge of facing UK's bigs ... "Well Keanau has found himself a little bit. And I think the thing with this whole team has been that we're trying to--we've got young guys and we're trying to build this program and the confidence level I think was something that was lacking. And Keanau, we put him in--he didn't play for a couple of games and not because he'd done anything wrong. It just was a production thing. Put him against Lipscomb the other night and they had a big guy - 6-10 or whatever he was, 300-some pounds - and Keanau did a great job on him and was also able to score some buckets. That carried over to the LSU game. Again, a team with great size. So maybe--in my mind he's gained some confidence. The other night against Auburn, he played all right. He wasn't great. He wasn't bad. Ryan Rosburg gave us some good minutes. So against Kentucky, we obviously need him. We need Rosburg. We need everybody that we have to play maybe above the level that they normally play because the thing that Kentucky does so good is, other than execute, they do so such a great job rebounding and we will be undersized no matter who we put out there. So to me a huge key to this game is us being able to compete on the boards and keep them from just getting a ton of second shots and certainly Keanau, Ryan and all of our front-line guys gotta figure into that." On whether there is an update on Montaque Gill-Caesar ... "He will not play. He will not play. No."
On how to attack this UK defense and whether there are areas where they are vulnerable ... "No. I think what we have to do is - and we did not do a great job of this against Auburn - is that we have to do a better job of executing. I thought against Auburn a couple times we called a play or we were going to run a set and we didn't get to the right spot and we got four guys running it and one guy not. Your margin for error against Kentucky is so slim that you gotta be on top of your game on both ends of the floor. But from an offensive standpoint, certainly their size presents a problem for us. We've got some ideas. There are some things we're going to do, but it's gonna come down to making shots. And that seems like a very simple statement, but it's gonna come down to making perimeter shots if we can get good perimeter shots. Maybe trying to extend their bigs out on the floor a little bit so we can get to the basket. But they're so long. They have a great capability to block shots. I just want to go in there and play, play hard, kind of see where we stack up and see where it takes us."
On whether Ole Miss and Texas A&M's close games vs. UK are encouraging ... "I think the thing--you watch them play Ole Miss and you watch them play A&M, both of those teams played exceptional games. Both of them had great performances from guards. I know (Danuel) House played well from A&M and I know Mississippi's guy played great. So I think in order to beat them, you're going to have to have somebody have a special game. If anything, they've been challenged two games in a row, probably haven't played their best game and they still won. And I think that says a lot about their team and about their program. So you can look it two ways. You can look at it like, well, you know, Ole Miss and A&M pushed them to the wire. Maybe we can too. Or Ole Miss and A&M pushed them to the wire and, uh oh, we're going into Rupp Arena and they're going to be upset and they're going to really be ready to play. So I really don't get into all that. I think it's go down and play the game and try to execute better than we have and see if we can play better than we have in the last couple of games."
The top-ranked Gamecocks are outscoring opponents by more than 31 points on average and feature arguably the nation's most imposing frontline.
On Sunday, Kentucky faces the task of handing South Carolina its first loss on the road. The challenge, significant as it may be, isn't one that has the Wildcats cowering.
"We're certainly not going over there to give it the old college try and hang with them," Matthew Mitchell said. "We're going to go over there to win. It's a tall task, but we have a plan. I think if we go over there and execute our plan and work our tails off, we'll have a great chance to win."
Mitchell has reason for confidence.
His team, after all, enters Sunday's 1 p.m. ET trip to Columbia, S.C., with a No. 10 ranking, a 14-2 record and two wins over top-10 opponents. The Cats, in spite of playing without senior defensive stopper Bria Goss, are off to the same 3-0 start to Southeastern Conference play as South Carolina (15-0).
UK, in other words, is pretty good too.
"To think that we are some prohibitive underdog here and we don't have a chance to win - now could we go over there and lose? There is no question," Mitchell said. "If we don't play well. We are certainly not going over there to just give it all we've got and hopefully hang in there with them. We're going in there to win."
But to win, the Cats will have to adhere strictly to the plan Mitchell mentioned, especially inside. UK will be at a size disadvantage against the Gamecocks, who feature four players 6-foot-4 or taller and block an average of 6.2 shots per game, which means it will have compensate in other areas.
"We are going to have to play real strategically sound basketball, which you can't do in the post against them," Mitchell said. "You just can't go in there without a plan. You can't just go in and shoot the ball around the basket. You've got to have some focus on some technical things you need to do to guard the post. You can't just go chest to chest with them and challenge them."
The likes of Aleighsha Welch, Alaina Coates and freshman A'ja Wilson will have a field day if the Cats try that. Dawn Staley's group might be ranked higher than it ever has been before, but the team doesn't look all that different to Mitchell, and he means that in a good way. He would know since the Gamecocks are a permanent conference rival, meaning two annual matchups between the two teams.
"When you play somebody twice a year, you get to know them, and no matter where they're ranked, if they're ranked No. 1 or we have played them when they are unranked, it just doesn't matter," Mitchell said. "They're always real tough. Always play together, always play real hard, always make it tough on you to score. So really, they're doing the same things that South Carolina has become known for."
Rebounding, of course, is one of those things.
The Gamecocks are outrebounding opponents by an average of 11 per game, which is of particular concern considering the Cats were just bested on the boards 45-35 in a win over Auburn on Thursday. With that in mind, UK will go to work.
"We've just got to figure out a way to be a good box-out team," Mitchell said. "Listen, if we don't rebound well Sunday, it'll be a long day. They can just reach over you and go get the ball, so rebounding will be really important and we'll do everything that we can today and Saturday morning and Sunday morning to remind them and we'll go out there and see if we can make some improvements from Thursday night into Sunday afternoon."
To that end, Mitchell and his coaching staff reviewed film from the Auburn game and counted missed box-out assignments. The guilty parties were then assigned to run based on those missed assignments.
A few weeks ago, the Cats had to do something similar when turnovers became an issue. They have responded, most notably by committing 15 or fewer turnovers in three SEC wins, which suggest similar improvement on the glass is possible.
"This group has shown some ability that once they start focusing in on something, that they can do some things and correct some things," Mitchell said. "We've corrected our turnovers so far in league play, so hopefully, we can have that kind of improvement on rebounds."
UK Hoops is off to a quick start to the 2014-15 season, but rarely has that been the case in any single game.
The Wildcats have been consistently sluggish out of the gate, even in their best wins of the season, which Matthew Mitchell knew was unsustainable if they wanted to reach their goals.
On a bitterly cold Thursday night, UK reversed the trend.
"I thought we got off to a very good start," Mitchell said. "I will tell you the kids worked really hard this week on their games and on their minds. We tried to improve, so hopefully all of the hard work paid off with a good start."
Hosting Auburn, the Cats grabbed leads of 9-4 and eventually 21-10. The Tigers would battle back, but UK's lead never dipped below seven points en route to a 78-57 win in Memorial Coliseum to move to 14-2 (3-0 Southeastern Conference).
"I think we did a good job of starting off strong this game," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored 17 points due in large part to her five made 3s. "Usually we start out real flat or real slow, but we started off faster than we normally do, which got us off to a good pace."
UK's focus after a Sunday win over Ole Miss on improvement wasn't limited to getting off to a quick start.
In that victory over the Rebels, Mitchell was forced to rely on O'Neill, Janee Thompson, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper to play a combined 140 minutes due to unpredictable post play. All week and against Auburn, Kentucky's young bigs took steps forward.
"I thought we played a little bit better tonight at times," Mitchell said. "They worked real hard. They've worked really, really hard since our game Sunday. They put a lot of time into it. We still have a lot of improvement that we need to make, but we're working like crazy to try to get up to speed."
Included in that group is Azia Bishop, the veteran of the group. The senior, now trying to step into a leadership role, says she's never worked harder.
"(Assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou pushes us really, really hard," said Bishop, who had eight points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and four steals. "We get in before practice, after practice, before games and he believes us a lot and he motivates us really well. So I think that this is the toughest year for me, but I think it's helping me and it's going to help me in the long run."
Though UK is more consistent in the backcourt, the guards haven't been excused from the hard work, most notably in taking care of the basketball. Through the first 10 games of the season, the Cats committed 20 or more turnovers six times. In the last six, they haven't done it once, including three straight in SEC play with 15 or fewer.
Considering Auburn was forcing 21.6 miscues per game with its full-court press and UK turned it over just 12 times against the Tigers, it's clear the Cats are on the right track.
"I'm just happy that we have been able to show some maturity in that area," Mitchell said. "I've really faulted the team throughout the year about our lack of maturity. It shows that they have taken it seriously."
With a trip to face an unbeaten, top-ranked and overwhelmingly big South Carolina team on Sunday looming, the next order of business is to address rebounding. UK was bested on the boards by a count of 45-35 against Auburn, but with the way the Cats dedicated themselves earlier this week, there's no reason to think they can't progress in that area against the Gamecocks.
"I can't tell you how hard the players and the coaches have worked this week and we're just fighting every day to try to get better and see if we can become a good team," Mitchell said.
John Calipari leads Kentucky into a road matchup with Texas A&M on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari took a new approach to the holiday break this year.
For this edition of the practices, workouts and film sessions known affectionately (or un-affectionately, depending on who's talking) as Camp Cal, Calipari shifted the focus from team to individual. He asked his players to name an area of their game they wanted to add or improve before the end of the season and committed to helping them do it.
Willie Cauley-Stein said he wanted to handle the ball more effectively. Andrew Harrison picked out his mid-range shot as an area for growth. So too did Dakari Johnson, who even attempted one such shot in Kentucky's first game after the break.
"I kind of scrunched, like, 'Phew, not now,' " Calipari said. "But we've been working on that. That's one of the things he's added to his game. So I can't now work on it with him and then tell him not to do it."
Johnson's shot, which missed, came in the second half of an overtime win over Ole Miss with UK up just two, so it's only natural Calipari cringed a bit when his bruising 7 footer decided to show off his newfound range. So then, does that reveal he may have erred in changing things up for a team that had steamrolled through its first 13 games?
Ahead of a Saturday trip to Texas A&M (9-4, 0-1 Southeastern Conference), Coach Cal thinks not.
"I'm not backing up," Calipari said. "Each individual by the end of this year, I want you to look at and say, 'He is a better player.' Every one of these guys you look at: 'He is a better player.' And if that happens, then our team has grown, we're doing all the kind of stuff we need to do."
Karl-Anthony Towns, meanwhile, acknowledges there's a balancing act for UK (14-0, 1-0 SEC) in adding new individual elements, but he's on board with Calipari's point of view. He used one familiar phrase and a new metaphor in the span of a sentence to make his point.
"Of course, but at the same time, if it's not broke, don't fix it, but if the pencil is good enough to use, why not make it sharper?" Towns said. "We can still do a lot of things to improve your game and make it even a more valuable part and asset to your game. That's my thing. I just want to make sure I continue growing and doing new things, but also, like I said, make the pencil sharper."
It's not as if the pencil was dull to begin with, which is why the fact that UK played its first close game after Camp Cal might concern some. Once again, Calipari isn't buying in. He just wants to make sure the new focus doesn't detract from what has made UK so dominant.
"My thing was not 'it's not broke, don't fix it,' " Calipari said. "It was did they focus more on what we were trying to teach them individually and got away from the energy that they need to play with? I'm going to talk about it today. But I'm still -- I'm telling them, 'I'm counting on you to bring energy.' "
If nothing else, Ole Miss proved the Wildcats don't have any choice but to bring energy if they want to keep that unblemished record much longer.
"It was definitely a wake-up call for all of us, I think," Trey Lyles said. "They're going to come out and play that much harder against us. It's SEC play now, very physical. I'd say it was the most physical game we played so far this year and we're going to get every team's best shot so we just have to be prepared for it."
That "everybody's Super Bowl" thing goes to another level on the road, too, and that's exactly where UK will go this weekend against the Aggies. Fortunately for the Cats, they have some experience to call on from their win at Louisville on Dec. 27.
"I learned we really just have to come out with energy," Towns said. "No matter where we are, we have to take control of the game from the get. If we can do that we can have a lot easier time during the game. If we allow the opponent to be the aggressor, it can be a rough night for us."
A&M dropped its SEC opener against Alabama, 65-44, but did so without leading scorer and rebounder Jalen Jones, who missed the game due to a sprained ankle suffered Jan. 3. Second-leading scorer Danuel House was also limited to 21 minutes after picking up two early fouls.
"They're great at pick-and-rolls," Calipari said. "They've got players at every position that can score. They're playing a pack-line defense, man-to-man. They'll also play a tandem zone like all these teams are now playing us. So, they're going to come in with one thought: Let's slow these guys down. They'll run offense. They'll shoot it quick when they get into transition, but they're going to make us play in the half court. They're a good team."
UK will have to respond, and there's only one way to do it.
"It's all effort and energy, but these guys are young," Calipari said. "What we're asking them to do is really hard. They'd rather not do it. They'd rather do it their way: Let me jog and stand straight up and shoot a fade away. You just can't win playing that way."
Vince Marrow signed a contract extension through 2018 to stay at UK. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The offer was tough to pass up.
Jim Harbaugh, one of the most respected coaches in the game, was returning to his alma mater, Michigan, to resurrect the winningest program in college football history. So when Harbaugh called Vince Marrow to offer him a job, Marrow had to listen.
Marrow, however, just couldn't leave what he was helping to build at Kentucky. More importantly, he just couldn't leave the people he was building with.
"Michigan, being a Midwest guy and being from Ohio, it was very tempting," Marrow said on Wednesday, "but it was just my relationship here with the administration and our staff and even the kids that I have coming in this year and the kids that I have recruited the last two years played a big part of that."
On Monday, Marrow signed a contract extension that will keep him at UK through the end of the 2018 season as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. The news ended a week of speculation about whether Marrow would stay or leave.
"The last three days I couldn't really go anywhere without people saying things to me," Marrow said. "We were in church and the guy doing the offering said something, that is how deep it got. Relationships played a big part to just be honest with you guys."
Building relationships is the biggest reason why Marrow has developed a reputation as an ace recruiter, establishing a pipeline to Ohio and reeling in 14 prospects in UK's 2013 and 2014 signing classes. As for the 2015 recruits who have already pledged to come to Kentucky, even they were a little surprised he told Michigan thanks but no thanks after sleepless nights last weekend.
"I know that a lot of our recruits were very fired up because for some reason they just assumed I was gone," Marrow said. "I told people that it wasn't a slam dunk and a lot of people were saying that it was a slam dunk I was going."
Marrow, at the end of the day, had invested too much in Mark Stoops' vision for the future of UK football to leave even for an opportunity like the one he passed up. And with an athletics department so willing to invest in Marrow, as well as in more than $150 million in ongoing facility upgrades, he sees that vision become reality.
"It shows that our athletics director, Mitch (Barnhart), the route he is going, our administration and it shows were the program is going and I believe in that wholeheartedly," Marrow said. "You look at the stadium renovations and just at the type of support that we have been getting over the last two years here. That always plays a big part in it."
His decision made, Marrow's attention goes back to recruiting. He played a crucial role in securing classes ranked 17th and 29th by Rivals.com in the past two seasons, the two best classes in the history of the recruiting service. Marrow expects similar success come signing day in February.
"We are going to finish strong just like we did the last two years," Marrow said. "We have a couple more slots that we have to fill and it is just a situation where I know with me staying here a lot of those guys were very fired up to see that. We will see where we are going to finish, but I feel pretty good about it though. It is going to be pretty good."
Andrew Harrison had 12 points and five assists in UK's overtime win over Ole Miss on Tuesday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
It had been almost nine months to the day since the Harrison twins last played in a close game.
They didn't forget what to do.
"We just knew that we had to step up to win the game and that's what we did," Aaron Harrison said. "We'd do anything to win. We've been in big games before, obviously, so we just knew how hard we had to fight."
Though Aaron Harrison didn't hit one of his patented game-winning 3s from the left wing, the twins made all kinds of clutch plays on Tuesday night in an 89-86 win. Top-ranked Kentucky (14-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference), with the two big guards leading the way, survived an overtime thriller in Rupp Arena against Ole Miss (9-5, 0-1 SEC).
"Just gotta make big plays at important times," Aaron Harrison said. "That's what we did."
After the visiting Rebels took a 63-61 lead with 7:17 left, the twins combined to score 15 of UK's final 28 points, including Andrew Harrison's 3-pointer with 2:08 left in overtime to put the Cats up one. He also hit the free throw that sent the game to overtime after Trey Lyles came away with a steal.
"I think Coach looks to me to make the big plays, so I just try to do it," Andrew Harrison said. "If they give me a shot I'm going to try and take it and make it for my team."
On the evening, Andrew Harrison had 12 points, five assists and only one turnover, steadying the ship as Ole Miss hit 49.2 percent from the field and 9-of-17 from 3-point range against UK's historically stingy defense. It was a far cry from his last outing, when he had just three points and an uncharacteristic six turnovers in a win at Louisville.
The performance drew unfair criticism, but Aaron Harrison never doubted whether his brother would bounce back.
"I knew he was going to respond well," Aaron Harrison said. "He always gets criticized and stuff like that. We just gotta not listen to it. It's nonsense anyway."
That "nonsense" is likely in reference to the talk that UK would be better off by relying primarily on freshman Tyler Ulis at point guard instead of the timeshare that's propelled the Wildcats to an unbeaten start. Andrew Harrison admits the talk got in his head, but only briefly.
"After that game I took it personal, just stuff - kind of stupid," Andrew Harrison said. "But you just try to move on to the next game and play as hard as you can and win for your team and not pay attention to people who really don't know anything about our team."
For UK to reach its ceiling, Andrew Harrison, Ulis, John Calipari and everyone in the team huddle always knew it would take both point guards. Tuesday was proof of that.
Ole Miss saw an opportunity to take advantage of the 5-foot-9 Ulis and did just that.
"You saw we had an issue, they went after Tyler, his size," Calipari said. "They took him right to the middle of the lane and just jumped up over him. So that's why I went with a bigger lineup."
The bigger of UK's two platoons - the Harrison twins' blue group - staked UK to 15-2 lead. Aaron Harrison hit a pair of 3s in the scorching start and five for the game, but the Rebels responded behind Stefan Moody, who scored 16 of his 25 points in the first half to put the Cats in a 38-36 hole at the break.
"I mean, we knew they were going to fight," said Aaron Harrison, who poured in 26 points. "All SEC's tough. It's a tougher conference than people think and we knew they weren't just going to lay down. So they just came out and fought really hard. They played really well."
Prior to Tuesday, the closest game UK had played was decided by eight points. A game like this one was always going to come, so the Cats needed it.
"You just kind of learn who's going to fight," Aaron Harrison said. "And I think we do have a deep team and most everybody fought today. We all had points in the game where we had to make big plays and we made them. I think we learned a lot about our team today."
In talking about that very thing, Coach Cal trotted out one of his favorite phrases.
"I got a team with a will to win," Calipari said. "They fought. They had every chance to let go of the rope and pout and feel bad for themselves and they didn't. They all made plays. That's a good sign."
A good sign, yes, but the fact that it had to show up at all was surprising.
On top of entering as heavy favorites, the Cats shot 11 of 20 from 3-point range, the kind of shooting night Calipari has said previously would almost guarantee UK of a blowout win. Instead, Kentucky had to scratch and claw for every inch against a game Ole Miss team that may very well have won had Moody not cramped late and Jarvis Summers (23 points) hit a 3 in the waning moments of regulation.
For this much talked-about unbeaten run to continue, the Cats will have to improve and soon with a trip on Saturday to College Station, Texas, looming, where Texas A&M is "having parties" in anticipation of a shot at UK.
"I see it as his team played out of their mind and we, we kind of didn't have the fight we need," Calipari said. "A lot of young guys not knowing, even some vets not understanding that there's no one going to surrender. They're playing their hearts out and that's what you saw from Mississippi today."
Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For nine days, UK fans have had to live life without watching their beloved (and top-ranked) Wildcats.
The players, meanwhile, surely enjoyed a breather with no classes and no games for almost a week-and-a-half, right?
"It hasn't been a break," Tyler Ulis said.
Instead, the Cats (13-0) have endured the rigors of "Camp Cal" leading up to their Southeastern Conference opener vs. Ole Miss (9-4) at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday. John Calipari has happily filled his team's would-be free time.
Ulis and Booker make up the backcourt of UK's White platoon. If it looks at times like they have a chemistry developed over years, it's because they do. The two freshmen first met as eighth graders at the Nike Elite 100 Camp in St. Louis and became camp teammates first and fast friends soon after.
"We really liked each other's game and that was more basketball," Ulis said. "Once we started talking more and exchanged numbers we just became really cool and decided we'd come to school together."
After more time spent together on camp teams, they would of course follow through and have reaped the benefits since arriving in Lexington over the summer.
"Coming to school, first, it made it a lot easier, you know just someone there that you've been friends with for a while so you can relate," Booker said. "We had to adjust to new things together, so I think it brought our brotherhood together even closer than it was."
The two, who call themselves best friends, might have grown tighter since coming to college, but the energy they've used to set the tone for UK's practices has always been there.
"When we were on the same team at camp and stuff we were the same way," Booker said. "We never wanted to lose. We're just two competitive people. Even when we're going against each other, even when we're playing video games, just everything, we're competitive. I guess it was just something that was instilled in us at a young age and we just use it all the time. Coming here, practice is so competitive and it makes us better every day."
Ulis and Booker developed the mentality separate from one another, but it becomes even stronger when the two are together.
"We have an understanding," said Ulis, who celebrated his 19th birthday on Monday. "We're both competitive and want to win every time we're on the court. We feed off each other."
In spite of their team's unblemished record, that doesn't mean they actually do win all the time in practice. Going up against Andrew and Aaron Harrison's Blue platoon every day, that would be impossible.
"A few days ago, the White smashed the Blue and then two days ago the Blue absolutely smashed the White," Calipari said. "They had no chance. That's how it's been and if you don't show (up), then that's what's happening."
It should come as no surprise that Ulis took the loss hard, even though it was in a practice.
"Tyler made a couple bad plays, turned it over and he apologized. 'My fault, guys.' " Calipari said. "And he was really upset with himself because he wanted to win that scrimmage. That's why, when you see how hard these kids play, you see them compete in games, it's because they compete that way in practice. And Devin and Tyler have really driven that part of the culture that we have here."
That culture is why the Cats are in constant search of the next improvement to be made in spite of leading the nation in scoring margin, as well as a score of other defensive statistics.
"I feel like we all understand that we need to get better because offensively we know we're not where we need to be," Ulis said. "Our defense is very good but we need to execute more, so that's what we're working on."
To that end, Coach Cal has implemented a change to the way his guards play that has evoked memories of the "tweak" that preceded UK's 2014 Final Four run, right down to his evasiveness when asked exactly what it is.
"Now there's a few areas that we're looking at, like OK let's now keep these players engaged and get them to focus on a couple areas, which is what we've done the last seven, eight days," Calipari said. "And obviously I'm not talking about those things, but you'll see them."
Ulis was willing to share a little more information.
"He's just trying to help us draw fouls and not flail into the defenders when we get to the bucket," Ulis said. "Basically, just helping us all out a little bit, which has helped. It's changed a lot in practice. We're actually doing great with the adjustments."
Considering league coaches spent much of Monday's teleconference talking in reverent tones about how the Cats have established themselves as ahead of the pack in not only the SEC but the nation, that might seem like piling on. But it's not greed that's driving UK; it's that competitive fire.
"I think we have to focus on ourselves like Coach stresses to us - to play against ourselves, and you know, whoever's out there, we're not playing against them," Booker said. "We're playing against ourselves."
Vince Marrow has signed a contract extension that will keep him at UK through 2018. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After a week of speculation about whether he might take another job, Kentucky tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in Lexington through June of 2018. The news was first announced on UK's official football Twitter account.
.@UKCoachStoops has announced that TE coach and recruiting coordinator @vincemarrow has agreed to a contract extension through June of 2018.
Marrow has earned a reputation as an ace recruiter in his two years at UK, playing an instrumental role in the two highest-rated classes in school history according to Rivals.com over the last two seasons. Marrow, a teammate of Mark Stoops at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, has been especially active in establishing a pipeline to his home state.
"I'm thankful for the support of Dr. (Eli) Capilouto, Mitch Barnhart and Coach Stoops with this contract extension," Marrow said. "Our program is headed in the right direction on and off the field with the new facilities and overwhelming support of the Big Blue Nation. I'm excited to be part of it as we continue moving forward."
Stoops, as you might expect, was excited about the news as well.
Vince has been an important part of the growth of our program and I'm excited about his contract extension.