Aaron Harrison scored 11 points in UK's win at Missouri on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On Friday afternoon, assistant John Robic allowed himself about as long a moment of reflection as you'll see a coach take during the season.
Kentucky, with a win late on Thursday at Missouri, became the first Southeastern Conference team since Rupp's Runts in 1965-66 to start the season with 20 wins in a row. Robic credited the players for making it happen.
"It's kinda neat that they can make their mark as a team," Robic said. "But they probably don't even know it. It's a good feeling to have, and we're just going to try to keep stringing games along right now."
The No. 1 Wildcats (20-0, 7-0 SEC) have no shortage of opportunities to do just that.
The trip to Missouri started a stretch of three games in six days, the next coming at 7 p.m. on Saturday against Alabama (13-7, 3-4 SEC). The Cats didn't return to campus until close to 2 a.m. on Friday morning, leaving them barely 40 hours to prepare for a rematch with the Crimson Tide at Rupp Arena, a turnaround similar to what UK will face during the NCAA Tournament.
"We're going to work out later today, show them some film and get ready for Alabama," Robic said. "But, these kids are used to playing AAU basketball where they play four or five times a day. That's a good thing about playing as many players as we're playing, they should be somewhat OK physically."
Alabama, on the other hand, last played on Tuesday evening. The Crimson Tide lost 52-50 to Florida after trailing by 13 early in the second half, its fourth loss in five games after a 2-0 start to conference play.
Included in that stretch is a 70-48 loss to Kentucky on Jan. 17. The Cats were dominant, leading by as many as 28 in shooting an even 50 percent from the field. Robic expects Alabama, which ranks 44th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, to respond to that.
"Well, they played us all zone the first game and played their tandem matchup zone," Robic said. "I think they'll mix it up a little bit this time with some man and some zone, and have us make shots."
UK hasn't had to make or even take many outside shots of late, attempting only 22 3-pointers combined over its previous three games. The Cats have tallied three of their four lowest single-game totals for 3-point tries this season during that stretch after attempting an average of 22.1 3s in their previous seven games.
Robic says the shift isn't by design. Rather, UK is responding to the way opponents are defending.
"I mean, if they're open we want to shoot them, so from our standpoint, if they're not forcing 3s we'll take what they give us," Robic said.
Aaron Harrison continues to take 3s often, but his 10 tries over the last three games are a far cry from the 51 he shot over a six-game stretch from the end of nonconference play through his first two SEC games. He's attacking the basket more often instead, attempting 15 2s over his last three games after shooting just two in his previous two games combined.
Whether that trend continues remains to be seen.
"In the last couple games he's shown that," Robic said. "Against a zone could be different. Missouri played us all man-to-man. We just gotta go with how the game is flowing and take open shots when they're there."
Andrew Harrison had 15 points, three assists, three rebounds and three steals in UK's win at Missouri on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On a night that lacked rhythm from start to finish and was frankly fairly ugly, Andrew Harrison's game was anything but.
"Andrew Harrison, look at how he played today," John Calipari said. "Drew fouls, ran our team."
Harrison was excellent in a rematch with Missouri, needing just four field-goal attempts to score a team-high 15 points. He got to the line 11 times, making nine, and added three assists, three rebounds and three steals.
All told, he was the biggest reason why No. 1 UK moved to 20-0 (7-0 Southeastern Conference) with a 69-53 win over the home-standing Tigers (7-13, 1-6 SEC) on Saturday night.
"He did a great job of running his team," Calipari said.
It was a confidence-boosting performance for a player who Coach Cal often says is too hard on himself.
Harrison entered the game shooting just 32.7 percent from the field and 21.9 percent over his previous 10 outings. The difference, in his mind, is simple.
"Just being more aggressive, really," Harrison said. "Being more aggressive and having more confidence in myself, so attack the rim and stuff like that."
Simple as that may be, it's not always easy to put into practice. That's why Coach Cal has so consistently pounded the idea into his sophomore point guard's head.
"It's like I said: You have the green light to go play basketball, but not mess around with the ball," Calipari said. "Go by people, get fouled and no one's stopping you."
Coach Cal has compared Harrison to a former pupil in that respect, saying he falls victim to the same kind of sensitivity as Derrick Rose did when it comes to his own failure. The difference, says Calipari, is that Harrison isn't yet able to consistently turn that into something positive.
"He is too self-critical," Calipari said. "And it's OK to be self-critical if you're using it to improve yourself. But if you use it--your inner dialogue buries you, then you gotta change your inner dialogue."
As a result, Harrison has struggled at times. The same, however, is true for most all his teammates.
"What's happened for this team, all year guys have played poorly (at times) and we've still won," Calipari said. "So maybe it was Dakari (Johnson). Maybe it was Karl(-Anthony Towns). Maybe it was Willie (Cauley-Stein). Maybe it was Marcus Lee. Maybe it was guards. Maybe it was Andrew. Maybe it was Tyler (Ulis), who couldn't play against Mississippi at the end of the game. Maybe it was Devin (Booker), today and in a few games early in the year where he just played awful."
The latest player to find himself mired in a short-term slump is Cauley-Stein, who managed only two points and three rebounds. Harrison can relate to his 7-foot teammate, and that makes him certain Cauley-Stein will come out on the other end of it.
"You're going to have your up and down games," Harrison said. "Just like myself, I haven't been playing well either. So Willie will be fine. Willie will do him and he'll be just fine. I can promise you that."
In the meantime, the Cats are going to try to keep piling up Ws no matter who's playing well and who isn't.
"Well, it's OK," Calipari said. "We can win without you. Just play hard. Play with energy. And that's, I think, what makes this team pretty good."
Devin Booker and UK will travel to Missouri for a rematch with the Tigers on Thursday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Kentucky entered its first matchup with Missouri a heavy favorite and the game proceeded accordingly.
Two weeks later, it's time for the rematch. The result, then, would figure to be the same, right?
John Calipari isn't so sure.
"There's a reason you play the games," Calipari said. "The last score does not matter. Whether you won or lost has no bearing on the game you're about to play, especially in college."
Well, maybe some bearing after all. The Tigers (7-12, 1-5 Southeastern Conference), says Coach Cal, will be smarting a bit when the top-ranked Wildcats (19-0, 6-0 SEC) come to Columbia, Mo., on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET, not far removed from an 86-37 loss.
"I think the last game helps them a lot more than it helps us," Calipari said. "Probably stung them a little bit."
Marcus Lee, who has earned a more regular role in recent weeks by playing with the kind of inexorable energy Calipari demands of the 6-foot-9 sophomore, believes the same.
"They're just going to try to go twice as hard and just go at us like there's nothing else to lose," Lee said. "That's how everybody has to go throughout each game no matter who you're playing."
Also working in Missouri's favor is the site of Thursday's game. Rather than dealing with a hostile road crowd in Rupp Arena, the Tigers will be playing in the familiar surroundings of Mizzou Arena.
"It's totally different," Devin Booker said. "It's a road game. So our fans back at Rupp, they helped us a lot during that game, so I feel like their fans are going to try to do the same for them, so we just have to play against ourselves again. That's been like the topic of the season is playing against ourselves and not worrying about who our opponent is."
Booker, the three-time defending SEC Freshman of the Week, has embraced that attitude, but he won't be able to help but think about UK's opponent this time around.
His father, Melvin, was an All-American at Missouri in the early 1990s. To add fuel to the fire, Booker was recruited by Missouri starting when he was in middle school and has attended "four or five" games there.
"I've actually seen some pretty big games there--when they beat Kansas at their place, so it's a crazy environment," Booker said. "The student section showed me a lot of love. I'm sure it'll be different now, but I understand, so it's all good."
If anyone can cope with that, it's Booker.
The freshman guard has been unflappable so far in his UK career, averaging 14.5 points on 56.3-percent shooting (52.6 percent from 3) in four true road games. Those games have come during an extended hot streak that's spanned more than six weeks, as Booker has hit 22-of-33 3-point tries over his last nine games to bring his season shooting percentage to .500.
"That's pretty salty," said Missouri head coach Kim Anderson, who was an assistant at Missouri when Booker's father played there.
Along the way, Booker has refused to take any heat checks normally expected of a shooter in such a rhythm. That includes the first Missouri matchup, in which Booker attempted only two field goals.
"I've based my game off, my whole life, playing the right way and doing what I have to do to win," Booker said. "So if that was shooting the ball only, what, two times, then that's what I had to do. So just make the most out of it scoring, but if scoring isn't what I have to do then I'm fine with it. We won by 49, so I'm totally OK with it."
Booker, no matter whether he's shooting or not, has proven himself to be willing to do whatever is asked of him, even on defense. Coach Cal might not have believed he would be able to defend as well as he has during the recruiting process, but Booker is making an impact on both ends now.
"I saw his dad after the South Carolina game and I said to Melvin, 'Look, I never thought he would defend this way,' " Booker said. " 'Do you remember me coming and watching you and your friends -- 45-year olds -- playing against your son? He couldn't guard anybody in that game.' Now all of a sudden, he's guarding."
Booker was relied so heavily to score in high school that defense was never a priority. Now playing on a deep team on a historic defensive pace, his mentality has changed.
"I feel like it's come a long way," Booker said. "Me and my dad talked about it a lot in high school that, you know, when I get to the next level I'm going to have to defend, so it's something I've focused on. I've figured out it's more of any effort thing than a skill, so if you out your effort towards it, it'll become easier."
Booker's defense will be tested against Missouri, as highly touted freshman Montaque Gill-Caesar is back in the lineup and playing well after a three-game absence that included the first UK game. Gill-Caesar is second on the team in scoring at 10.8 points per game after scoring 16 on 3-of-3 3-point shooting in 61-60 loss against Arkansas over the weekend.
If you needed any more proof of Gill-Caesar's ability, Coach Cal recruited him.
"He was a great kid," Calipari said. "Hard worker, very competitive, tough. He will mix it up. This will change the complexion of the game. They needed one more guy to mix it up and that's what he'll do. Plus, he can score. He can score baskets for them, which they struggled (with). "
Calipari is concerned about contending with Gill-Caesar, but his primary focus is elsewhere, as it has been all season.
"I would say for us I'm just focused on us getting better," Calipari said. "That's all it is. Trying some new stuff and messing around and getting these guys to continue to compete against one another."
UK has a couple extra days to prepare this week with the Wildcats' game at Missouri not until Thursday night. John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday to talk about the matchup, as well rule changes he would implement to improve college basketball, Devin Booker -- named SEC Freshman of the Week for the third straight time this week -- and other topics. Read it all below.
On this week's games against Missouri and Alabama ... "You talk about what Kim's (Anderson) doing to have Arkansas come down some free throws and shots at the end. The job he's doing with his new team and pretty young team is amazing. And I think Alabama, we all know how they play, how hard they play. Their zone and how they space you out. They had a rivalry game, they've had sellouts and they win that game against Auburn, which is a huge win, especially in the state. But not just in the state, in our league, as teams start to maneuver for position. But I think both programs, again, what bothers you in our league is there will be another league where a team will lose to one of the teams that's struggling in their league, 'But it's just a tough place.' Or a win at the buzzer and, 'Yeah, it's just a tough place to play.' And then in our league it's just a different ending. And I think we've gotta all- very coach and any media that's watching's gotta stop it. This league top to bottom right now, you can lose any road game. It doesn't mean you're not a good team. You have ranked teams in other leagues lose on the road or get right down to the wire against teams that should not have beat them and did or made the games close and it just shows the parity of the leagues. We've gotta be the same. This league right now is solid. Just because we're really good doesn't mean the league's not good. It's the opposite. I just heard Johnny (Jones) talking about Vandy. Vandy's really good, and yeah they gotta make shots to do it because of they play, but they do. They do make shots and make you guard them all the way to the shot clock. And if you don't and you make and error or you don't sprint back, they're making a 3. And as soon as they win a couple of these close games, you're going to see Vandy go on a run of games. That tells you how good this league is."
On UK taking it to another level after the two overtime wins ... "Well, I went back a full platoon for a minute when we had 10 guys and Dom's (Hawkins) been injured. He didn't practice last week for a couple days so he didn't get in the rotation. But we got kind of back to what we were. But let me say this: A&M didn't have their best player. They didn't have their best player when we played them. Billy (Kennedy), it's amazing the job he's doing and it's kind of getting overlooked. But the guy, he's got really good players who make plays, he's coaching his brains out, it's another team that's doing it. Now, my team, again, we're an energy team. If we come out and the other team is more excited about playing than we are, you're going to have a close game or we're going to lose or it's going to go to overtime. So you gotta make that other team match our energy. Not the other way around. And you gotta go through that. I love the fact that the games are close. I love the fact that one game we needed freshmen to step up and make plays, the next game we needed our vets. And I say vets. Our 19-year-old vets. But they had to come up and make plays and that's how this has been all year for us." On if being every team's Super Bowl can drain his team ... "How about it drains the coach? You walk in every gym and they have all the same colored t-shirts and it's filled to the top of the building and the students are there at 1 o'clock. Let me just say, it's, you can look at it as a situation where this is ridiculous, or you can look at it as more of an honor. Let's go in there and let's prove that it was worth them all coming here. I talk about it all the time with our team. We're trying, and it's what I do every year, how do I keep these guys fresh mentally, how do I keep them fresh physically, yet continue to improve. That's the balls we juggle here. There's not one game we will walk into where that other team's not ready. There's not one game we will walk into where that other team is not going to make their best and make shots they never make. Unless, we come out and play, you're getting beat. It is draining, but it's more of an honor than anything else.
"I think as kids come to Kentucky, they understand it's not for everybody. If you're not ready to be in the Super Bowl every night you play, being in one, being in that ready to go. If you want to be the only guy shooting balls, you're not coming here. If you want to be the face of the program, you have to be the center - you don't come here. If you think this is going to be easy, just let me play, don't coach me, you can't come here. I think through the recruiting process they get it, but they don't realize until we start playing games that it's even worse than what he said." On what rule he would change in college basketball if he could change one ... "I like what he (Jay Bilas) is saying with the shot clock, put it at 30 seconds or lower. That wouldn't bother me. Our teams are shooting at every 19 seconds. Last game, what we did is, my teams historically, if it's time to grind it out, we finish people off then. That's historically if you look back. Sometimes I do it earlier in the game. I mean, we played Kansas in the championship game. I did it with 17 minutes left in the half we started grinding it. Coach (Joe B.) Hall said, 'Why'd you do that?' I said, "Because I'm trying to win the game. What are you talking about?' So we'll use the rules the way they are, but most cases we're going to shoot it inside of 20 seconds anyway. I think that would be good.
"But I also think if you want to make the college game better, one, you start playing exhibition games - real exhibition games, play two of them. If it's during the school term, early, do it on weekends. Play whoever you want. Get with that other coach if you want to play your starters half the game and the other guys half the game. You do like the NBA does and you play exhibition games.
"Second thing is, I think you use the summer. College basketball should own August. Should own it. I figured it out last year when we went to the Bahamas and got that television coverage. Well, then why don't we have like football, and spring football? Why don't we have 10-12 days of practice in the summer where you can play exhibition games? Teams from Europe can come and play you, or if you want to take a trip, you have time to go take a trip and go do what we did in the Bahamas. And I think that's some different things I would roll with that, again, I just like to use the term common sense. 'Well, we've never done that.' I know. I know you haven't done it. We're always looking to, what's next? How do we improve this? What can we do? That Bahamas trip we took was huge for this team. Why should we have an advantage? If you don't choose to take a trip, practice 10-12 days. Now, you're not going to kill your kids, but, you know, hey, I don't want to fall behind because this, that's all, every year, you want to take a foreign trip two out of every four years, do it, but every year you should be able to practice 10 days and if a foreign team wants to come over - Greece wants to come over - to play 12 of our teams, why not? Let them come over and play. Televise them. Who cares? So, I think those are things that we can do that don't change what we're trying to do, just continue to grow our sport." On what else he wants to see from Devin Booker that he isn't currently seeing ... "I want to see him attack the basket better. Right now, when he attacks the basket, he doesn't avoid people. He's still flailing a little bit. I don't want him to just be a catch and shoot player. I want him to be an offensive threat.
"I'm telling you, you all can talk about what he's doing offensively. I saw his dad after the South Carolina game and I said to Melvin, 'Look, I never thought he would defend this way. Do you remember me coming and watching you and your friends - 45-year olds - playing against your son? He couldn't guard anybody in that game.' Now all of a sudden, he's guarding. His dad laughed and said, 'You were there, you saw it.' I said yeah, I never thought he'd guard like this.' So, aside from where he's growing offensively, early in the year remember I made him get shots off quick. You can't wind it up, it's not high school. The guy guarding you is not 5-7. He missed a lot of shots early if you remember, but then it caught up. Now he gets it and it's a wing, man. He gets it, it's off.
"The second part of that now is, how do we make him aggressive? If you saw Aaron (Harrison) last game, we're on Aaron for the same thing. Don't settle, man. Take that thing to the rim. I'm not telling you not to shoot 3s, but attack that basket. Get to the foul line, put them in jeopardy. So, we're doing different things to try to get him to that best version of himself." Missouri head coach Kim Anderson
On how he will prepare his team for UK after being blown out Rupp Arena ... "We really--when that game ended we obviously addressed it, but we didn't prolong our discussion on it. I think that Kentucky is the best team in the country. They have so many weapons. They're extremely well-coached. They just don't have a whole lot of weaknesses and for us I think the thing that I'm going to try to talk to our guys about is, 'Hey, this is an opportunity to play the best.' And they are coming to Columbia, so I know we'll have a good crowd. We're going to prepare kind of like we would any other game. I just hope we prepare better, we perform better than we did in Lexington. When we went to Lexington, I thought it was a great environment. I thought Coach Calipari obviously had them ready to play. They were coming off a couple of close games and they responded extremely well. We're excited about the opportunity to play and tough loss on Saturday. So we're looking forward to getting back on the practice floor and getting ready to play the best team in the country."
On how they will attack Kentucky's defense differently ... "Well, we've changed some things since then. I really think the thing that bothers you so much with Kentucky - and we all do this - they just do such a great job on their ball-screen defense because they're so long. They can switch, they're quick, they can switch. If they mess up, they have the advantage of having the guy at the basket to swat the basketball. I think we have to do a better job of executing. When we went to Lexington, I thought we got kind of in a scramble mode and didn't play with the precision that we need to play. Now it's hard to play with precision against them, but I think you do have to do a better job of whatever it is we decide to run, of executing and making harder cuts. I think they force you to play at a little bit quicker speed sometimes and that's something that we responded pretty well against Arkansas. So hopefully there will be some sort of carryover."
On the role UK's perimeter players play in the defense ... "I think their whole team's pretty good. Perimeter, front line, whatever you want to call them. I think their perimeter guys do a great job of guarding the basketball. The advantage that they have, the comfort level that I think they probably have - at least what I would have - is they know that they can be aggressive on the ball and they know that if a guy does get by them that they do have a lot of help in the back. And that makes it easier to put more heat on them, to put more heat on your opponent. But I think all those guys do--they're giving up 50 points a game. That's phenomenal when you think about that. Their opponents are shooting 32 percent from the field and 27 percent from 3. They've shot almost 200 more free throws than their opponents. Their defense has been phenomenal. In all their games, they've shown the ability to be able to guard the ball pretty well." On the play of Kentucky guard Devin Booker ... "He's playing way too good. He's playing really well. I coached his dad, I was an assistant when Melvin was here and certainly Melvin was a great player and a great individual to coach. I don't know Devin. I know we recruited him here last year, but he's certainly an outstanding player. He's really been a key for them. He's shooting the ball well and for a freshman he's really mature. If you think about it, he's shooting 50 percent from 3. That's pretty salty. The only thing I hope, is I hope Melvin is here Thursday so I get an opportunity to say hello, but Devin has done a great job."
Alabama head coach Anthony Grant
On Kentucky's guard play ... "I thought they really have great balance on the inside and out. They have great depth, great size and physicality. They shot the ball really, really well in our game. They have an excellent team."
On if Kentucky's guards stand out from other teams' guards in any way ... "They're really good. I don't really know how to compare them to other teams. They have great balance, they complement each other. They play really well together with the rotation that he (Coach Cal) puts in. They complement each other well."