Devin Booker scored 15 points, making 4 of 6 from 3-point range, in UK's 89-65 win over Boston University on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Joe Jones used every motivational ploy at his disposal.
He told his Boston University team Kentucky would have trouble sustaining the energy the Wildcats used to blow out Kansas on Tuesday. He showed them the way Buffalo played in building a five-point halftime lead on UK just five days ago.
Jones believed in everything he was saying, but there was one fact he was still resigned to before he took his Terriers into Rupp Arena.
"They have so many guys that are so good, one of them is going to get hot," Jones said.
On Friday night, that someone was Devin Booker.
Booker was the second-half star as UK (4-0) overcame a sluggish first half that saw the Cats manage just a five-point lead. He scored 12 of his 15 points after the break and UK outscored the Terriers 49-30 to register an 89-65 win in front of 22,485 fans at Rupp Arena.
"I finally got to see a shot go in," Booker said. "That's good to see, and most of all I wanted to get other people involved and I feel like we did that. We had a slow start, but in the second half we pulled it together."
Through his first three collegiate games, the sharp-shooting Booker managed just one make in 11 tries from 3-point range. The message delivered to him by everyone from John Calipari, his father, former NBA player Melvin Booker, and teammate Aaron Harrison was the same.
"I had a lot of talk with Coach and my dad," Booker said. "They just said, 'Keep shooting. It's going to fall.' And I came out tonight and it did."
Booker hit 4 of 6 from 3 against Boston and scored five of the first seven points in the 23-8 run UK used to close the game.
"You just gotta keep your confidence," said Aaron Harrison, who led UK with 19 points. "That's what being a shooting guard is. No matter how many shots you miss, you gotta keep going because that's what your team needs you to do: score the ball."
In spite of that positional label, Booker did more than just score on Friday. To go with his four rebounds, Booker had seven assists, the most for any Wildcat so far this season.
"Not very often," Booker said when he was asked if he's had many such games, "but it's easy when you have teammates like this."
The teammate on his mind when he said that was Dominique Hawkins, who was on the receiving end of Booker's last assist. Booker, for the fourth time of the night, lobbed a pass over BU's sagging 2-3 zone, but this one appeared out of his hand to be too high for the 6-foot Hawkins.
Hawkins, making his first career start with Alex Poythress day to day due to illness, rose over a defender and slammed home the pass for UK's final points of the night on what was unquestionably the dunk of an early season that's been full of them.
"I don't even know how high I went up for it," Hawkins said. "I'll have to watch the video after this is over.
"That lob was incredible," Booker said. "Seeing it from my view, it was crazy."
Booker, having seen what Hawkins did, will surely be eager to throw more such alley-oops, no matter how he's shooting. In high school, Booker was a prolific scorer who had to put the ball in the basket for his team to win. Now, he's just another star in Coach Cal's constellation.
That means he's learning how contribute when his shot isn't falling.
"It's an adjustment that you have to make from high school to college," Booker said. "And like I said, I feel like it's coming along right now. But like I said, when you have a team like this, if you're not shooting or not scoring you can involve yourself in different ways to contribute to the win."
Booker had most of the ways covered against BU, but he still wasn't immune to constructive criticism from Coach Cal.
With UK going away from its platoons more often in Poythress' absence, Calipari immediately yanked Booker when he failed to throw the ball ahead to Aaron Harrison on a fast break. Similarly, Karl-Anthony Towns had a breakdown defending a pick-and-roll and Trey Lyles had trouble defending smaller opponents on the dribble.
It's all part of the process.
"They're still learning," Calipari said. "They're going to do stuff like that."
But the talent, indisputably, is there. And though Booker is beginning to learn to contribute in multiple ways, when he's doing what he's known for, look out.
"It's nice to see when he makes shots, we become a little bit different," Calipari said.
UK returns to Rupp Arena on Friday at 7 p.m. ET for a matchup with Boston University. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The talk was out there before, but it's intensified in recent days.
Since the Wildcats' dominance of Kansas in the Champions Classic, more columns about their prospects of going unbeaten have been written than even Kentucky fans care to read. The "can UK beat an NBA team?" debate has been kicked up a notch too, with Eric Bledsoe confidently answering yes and ESPN running a poll on the topic with close to 200,000 votes, 52 percent of which were cast for the Cats.
But inside the Joe Craft Center, the mood is different. For the team that did the dominating, it's still November and the victory over Kansas was just that: one victory.
"We just have to keep working," Andrew Harrison said. "We played really hard. A lot of their shots didn't fall and stuff like that, so we know we still have a lot to improve on. It's just the third game of the season. It really doesn't mean anything."
Well, maybe it does mean something.
As poorly as the Jayhawks may have shot, it's impossible to ignore the work UK did on the defensive end in holding Kansas to 40 points, 11 made field goals and 8-of-41 shooting from 2-point range. At the very least, the Cats saw what their physical gifts can do to an opponent.
"With our length and our athletic ability, there's no reason why we can't be a really good defensive team because of our size," said assistant coach John Robic, filling in for John Calipari at UK's regular media availability before a matchup with Boston University (1-1) Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. "And size with athleticism equals - it could be a problem for an opponent. And that's what it was."
It was only a problem for Kansas because UK (3-0) made it so, shrugging off the hype surrounding the first big-stage game of the season and playing team defense.
"That was probably the biggest thing: how they were going to react to a high-level game against a very good top-ranked opponent," Robic said. "We obviously played really well, and I thought everybody responded very, very well in that game."
A year ago in a similar environment, the Cats had to climb uphill after Michigan State built a 10-point lead in the Champions Classic. Last season's freshman-laden group could never overcome the deficit, but this year's team had no such start with all its returning experience.
With the likes of Andrew Harrison leading the way, the four freshmen joining UK's two-platoon system were able to blend in, as much as four players as talented as them can blend in anyway.
"It's good because the pressure's not really on them so they can just go out there relaxed and play," Andrew Harrison said. "I'm sure they had fun and they played great."
UK's sophomore point guard has taken an active role in setting the tone for the freshmen so far, both leading by example and by stepping up his vocal presence. After he arrived on campus just before the start of the fall semester, he was unable to quickly command his team as he would have liked. Now, he's confident and comfortable in the role.
"He's just playing more loose and more relaxed," Aaron Harrison said. "He's just having more fun and I think that's the biggest thing."
In spite of that, Andrew Harrison was critical of himself after the Kansas game, taking the blame for a sluggish offensive start that saw UK make just two field goals in the first five-plus minutes.
"It's just better execution in the first half, and that's on me," he said. "I think we were a little tired the first little segment the blue team had or whatever, but it started working out. You get your second wind and I just tried to make sure the freshmen weren't that nervous and stuff like that."
With the Kansas game in the rearview window, Andrew Harrison will shift his focus to making sure those freshmen realizing the work ahead of them, starting with Friday's game against Boston University. The coaching staff will be doing the same.
"Each and every day, we have to get better at what we need to do as a team, whether it's defensively or offensively," Robic said. "And if we do that, we know that we're going to give it our best effort when we go out there, and hopefully tomorrow shows improvement for us."
UK posted 11 blocks in a dominant 72-40 win over Kansas on Tuesday in the Champions Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Rock Chalk, Jay blocked.
In a defensive performance for the ages -- at the very least, the best of the John Calipari era -- top-ranked Kentucky bludgeoned No. 5 Kansas on Tuesday in one of the most shocking outcomes of two top-five opponents in recent memory.
The Cats, who very much looked like the No. 1 team in the country in Indianapolis on Tuesday -- which is saying something considering the way Duke played in the first game -- denied everything Kansas tried to do offensively.
UK blocked as many shots (11) as Kansas made field goals, held the Jayhawks to 19.6 percent shooting and sent KU home to Lawrence with its worst loss of the mighty Bill Self era.
Tuesday's outcome was so hard to believe, so dominating and so demoralizing for Self that he sat at the podium in his postgame press conference, opened a bottle of water and wished it was something other than H20.
"I was hoping that was vodka," Self said. " ... Somebody's going to have to be special a certain night for them to get knocked off."
Special is the only way to sum up Kentucky's defensive effort Tuesday night.
For all the platoon talk coming into the UK-Kansas matchup, the difference in the Champions Classic nightcap wasn't platoons, depth or talent -- though they all played a factor of superiority against the Jayhawks.
It was length.
It was defense.
It was a relentless effort to allow nothing near the hoop.
"We were good today," John Calipari said in the understatement of the early season. "What we did was we defended, and it makes your offense a lot easier when you guard the way we did."
Quite frankly, UK's offense vs. Kansas was just OK. Coach Cal tweeted after the game that it was "average."
The numbers - 43.1 percent from the field - don't lie.
But average will be more than enough if Kentucky can continue to put together a half like it did in the second 20 minutes against Kansas when it gave up just 10 points and three field goals.
Or a half like it did in the first 20 minutes when it blocked eight shots.
Or a half like Sunday's against Buffalo</a> when it surrendered just 14 points and four field goals.
Or a half like the first one of the season</a> when it allowed only 16 points to Grand Canyon.
It's become pretty obvious through the first three games of the season that when the Cats decide they want to lock in defensively, they're nearly unbeatable.
"It's just energy," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who was credited with one of UK's 11 blocks. "You can tell the games we don't play like that - the games we're not playing up on the ball, hard and bothering the ball."
When the Cats play like they do Tuesday, it reminds Calipari a lot of his defensively nasty UMass teams.
"We had games where we shot under 40 percent and won, which means you're guarding," he said.
Kentucky's defense was so good in Indy that the Cats would have only lost by two points if they had been shutout in the second half.
Not only did UK deliver Kansas the worst loss of the Self era, it also held the Jayhawks to their lowest field-goal percentage (.196) under Self, their fewest field goals made (11) and their fewest points scored (40).
Over the final 12:30 of the game, Kentucky didn't allow Kansas a single field goal. In the first 5:21 of the second half, the Cats kept the Jayhawks off the scoreboard altogether.
(This is the part where we remind you that this was against the No. 5 team in the country and college basketball's second-winningest program of all time).
"We didn't have a whole lot of breakdowns," Calipari said. "What we did is we really covered for each other. We had the helper helping the helper."
Even when Kansas got the ball into the lane and appeared to have a clean look, UK would contest it with a foul. Hey, when you've got 10 guys at your disposal, you can afford a few fouls. Get knocked around enough - and never see the ball actually go through the hoop - and the rim starts to play mind tricks with you.
"It's nice when you have guys like Willie and Marcus Lee who can go guard guards," Coach Cal added. "So now if there's a switch or something or someone's open, they just go out and guard the guy."
Kentucky can attack defensively because - wait for it - the platoons. Playing in four-minute bursts has allowed the Cats to go at maximum effort on the defensive end.
As a result, UK has blocked 28 shots on the season, forced 49 turnovers and held its three opponents to a dismal 28.0-percent clip from the field.
"What I can't tell you is the kind of kids we have," Calipari said. "Couldn't do what we're doing. There's no way if we didn't have solid, selfless kids to do what we're doing and giving them half a game. We're playing them half a game and they're accepting it. Unless they allow us to do this, we can't do it. And that showed today what we're about."
The players buying into the system and sacrificing minutes has given Coach Cal the freedom to throw out relentless height. Kentucky's starting front line measures in at 7-foot, 6-11, 6-8, but unlike other teams when the subs come in, UK gets no shorter. When the reinforcements come in, as Calipari likes to call his second platoon, the three bigs go 7-0, 6-10, 6-9.
"You get long athletes that like to guard and they can cover up for mistakes as well as anybody that I've ever seen," Self said. Really, save for Tyler Ulis, all of UK's top 10 players are 6-6 are taller. With all that length, Coach Cal had planned on playing some zone against Kansas.
"And then the way we defended, I said, 'Nope, we're not playing any zone today,' " Calipari said.
Good call, Cal. There's no telling how many more blocks UK may have had.
UK blocked 11 shots and held Kansas to 19.6-percent shooting in a 72-40 win over Kansas on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Rarely, especially in recent years, has a Kentucky team been such a known commodity so early in the season.
With a group of returners from last year's national runner-up and the Big Blue Bahamas tour, UK fans and those who follow college basketball closely have had ample time to get to know the Wildcats, and remarkable hype has followed.
On Tuesday, anyone who didn't already know found out: These Cats, with those platoons, are a force to be reckoned with.
"We kind of bum-rushed them a little bit and every time they looked there were more tanks coming over the hill," Calipari said. "It wasn't substitutes; it was reinforcements. Here they come."
In the first top-10 matchup of the season, UK overwhelmed No. 5 Kansas in a 72-40 win that was just as one-sided as the final score suggested. In front of a national audience and a crowd of 19,306 in Indianapolis' Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Cats dominated with the same combination of length, athleticism, experience and depth that sent them to the top of preseason polls.
After Kansas' Bill Self had coached against the Cats for 40 minutes, he stepped to the podium for his postgame press conference. Before he fielded the first question, he took a drink of water and found himself disappointed it wasn't another clear liquid in the bottle.
"I was hoping that was vodka," Self joked.
In a remarkably balanced effort, all 16 Wildcats - scholarship players and walk-ons alike - saw the floor. Dakari Johnson, showing off his leaner physique, was a go-to post presence, scoring a game-high 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Andrew Harrison joined him in double figures, scoring 10 points to go with four assists. With him running the show, UK committed just six turnovers against 15 assists as 12 players scored..
"Andrew Harrison was unbelievable today, his control of the game and how much energy he played with," Calipari said.
As good as Andrew Harrison was, it was UK's defense that was primarily responsible for handing Kansas its largest margin of defeat in Self's tenure on a night the Cats shot only 43.1 percent themselves. In really the only back-and-forth battle of the night, the race between UK's blocked-shot total and Kansas' made field goals ended in an 11-11 tie, meaning the Jayhawks shot just 19.6 percent from the field and managed 0.635 points per possession.
"I thought they were great," Self said. "You get long athletes that like to guard and they can cover up for mistakes as well as anybody that I've ever seen. They were really, really impressive."
By the end of the game, the Jayhawks were turning away from the paint rather than attempt to shoot over the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Marcus Lee, who had four blocks apiece. Willie Cauley-Stein, already sixth on UK's all-time blocks list, had just one, but affected many more in allowing not a single Jayhawk to score double figures.
"What we did is we really covered for each other," Calipari said. "We had the helper helping the helper. I mean, it was like, you know - and it's nice when you have guys like Willie and Marcus Lee who can go guard guards. So now if there's a switch or something or someone's open, they just go out and guard the guy."
Kansas' lone effective offensive stretch was over the final 6:54 of the first half, during which UK saw a 16-point lead cut to 38-28 at halftime. For the rest of the game's 33-plus minutes, the Jayhawks scored just 24 points, including a scoreless stretch of more than five minutes to open the second half.
It was UK's second platoon of Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Lee and Johnson that yielded most of the run to close the first half, but Coach Cal stuck with the plan and played the same group out of the break.
"I wanted to see," Calipari said. "And I wasn't changing the rotation. I mean, I went right with the rotation. The guys who finished the half who played poorly I started the second half because that's how we do it. We got 10 starters on this team."
That sounds great in theory, but even Coach Cal has admitted it's no guarantee the platoon system lasts through the season. All along, he's said it will be the players and their belief - or lack thereof - in the system that decide whether it does.
"What I can't tell you is the kind of kids we have," Calipari said. "Couldn't do what we're doing. There's no way if we didn't have solid, selfless kids to do what we're doing and giving them half a game. We're playing them half a game and they're accepting it. Unless they allow us to do this, we can't do it."
UK, in dominating a team expected to contend for a Final Four berth, took a big step toward instilling belief that the platoon system can work, and it happened two days after Buffalo led the Cats by five at half.
"I really love it," Towns said. "It gives everyone, like he said, a fair chance. But at the same time, ... it allows us to go hard all the time."
With no player on the floor for more than 21 minutes and all 10 original platoon members playing at last 17, the Cats could run to the point of exhaustion with no concern about conserving energy. As nice as depth is, it's the talent that comprises it that differentiates Kentucky.
"We've had teams where we've had good guys, but there's a chance you may have 10 guys that play in the league all in their platoon deal," Self said. "We've had some teams where you have four or five guys that may have a shot. So it's a little bit different being able to do that."
In spite of all that, Tuesday was still just one game in mid-November. Perhaps sensing what the performance would do to the hysteria already surrounding his team, Coach Cal tried to let a little air out of UK's rapidly inflating balloon.
"No, we're not that good," Calipari said. "Next question."
But maybe they could be down the line.
Coach Cal was sure to point out that UK's offense needs work, especially when opponents go to sagging zone defenses and force the Cats to hit from the outside. He also said the Cats need to run more motion offense and also involve Aaron Harrison more after the guard scored only eight points against Kansas.
"We got so much to figure out about this team it's not funny," Calipari said.
There's a flipside to that, and opposing coaches likely won't find it all that funny either.
"The only good news is when we come into town the other guy's gotta figure out two teams," Calipari said. "Like, alright, how are we preparing for this?"