Dakari Johnson had eight points and seven rebounds in UK's 86-37 win over Missouri on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Dakari Johnson started his season with a bang.
He scored in double figures in six of his first eight games, showing off a leaner physique and improved conditioning.
He flew up and down the floor, played through contact inside and rarely took the path of least resistance, but fell into a trap soon after.
"It's hard," John Calipari said. "It's hard to play the right way. You try to go back to see if I can do it that other way. It's much easier."
Johnson, of course, would learn the easier way just doesn't work.
"And then what happens is, your confidence gets down," Calipari said.
His production suffered as well, especially in a two-point, four-turnover outing at Louisville. The 7-foot Johnson routinely yielded the advantage his size gives him by bringing the ball low and shooting off balance then and in games soon after and the difference was plain to see.
That version of Johnson, however, was long gone on Tuesday against Missouri.
"(I) just came out trying to be aggressive, just try to bring energy to the game (and) try to bring my shot up quicker," Johnson said.
Johnson's statistics - eight points on 3-of-7 shooting and seven rebounds - didn't look drastically different, but everything else about him did. He was running the floor, kept the ball high and easily dealt with double teams, mirroring the boost of energy UK got as a team as the 10-man platoon system returned.
The way Johnson played was hardly surprising to Coach Cal after watching him in the days prior.
"He's just better in practice," Calipari said. "I told him - you could almost watch guys in practice and say, 'If he plays like that, watch what happens.' But it's hard. It's hard to run really hard every time, outrun your guy."
Johnson has proven time and time again he's not afraid of a challenge, most notably this past offseason. Aware he needed to shed weight to take the next step in his game, Johnson changed his diet and took on an aggressive workout routine and he hasn't stopped since.
"I've been working on my body all summer so I can sustain that throughout the season, just keep on staying in the same diet, the same regimen that I've been staying on," Johnson said.
The results, save for that holiday swoon, have been plain to see.
"Dakari's playing great," Aaron Harrison said. "He's a great player. He's changed so much from last year. I've never seen someone change as much as he has over a year. He just works so hard and I'm really proud of him and happy for him."
Set for a trip to Alabama, top-ranked UK (16-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) will need Johnson to keep it up. The Crimson Tide (12-4, 2-1 SEC) is unbeaten in 10 home games this season and its only losses have come to No. 11/13 Iowa State, Xavier, No. 13/15 Wichita State and a much-improved South Carolina team on Tuesday.
"I know they're a big, athletic team that's a good defensive team as well and really have to play hard against them," Aaron Harrison said. "They play really hard."
Calipari anticipates Alabama will trap Johnson and his fellow post players.
"They have to," Calipari said. "They're not gonna surrender. I keep coming back to, 'Why are they playing like this and hard?' They're not surrendering. So they body-to-body him and they just try to lay on him."
By this point, Johnson is accustomed to that, and he's happy to create openings for his teammates on the perimeter.
"It's expected," Johnson said. "We're used to teams doubling down and going on the inside. As long as we're shooting it well that's going to open it up."
Dominique Hawkins scored six points and had two steals in 20 minutes on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari was cagey speaking to the media on Monday.
He mentioned a "great" team meeting. He asked rhetorical questions about what Kentucky needed to do to regain the swagger the Wildcats had seemingly lost in a pair of overtime wins to open Southeastern Conference play, questions to which he seemed to think he knew the answers. There was something he was choosing not to say.
On Tuesday night, when starting lineups were posted before UK's matchup with Missouri and Dominique Hawkins' No. 25 appeared, everyone found out what he was withholding.
The platoons, they were coming back.
"Well, I had planned on it, I just didn't tell you guys," Calipari said. "I don't tell you guys everything."
Following Alex Poythress' season-ending injury, Coach Cal cut his rotation to nine players, abandoning the strict 10-man platoon system that had drawn countless headlines and propelled UK to a hot start. The Cats kept winning after the move, but in increasingly unconvincing and therefore uncharacteristic fashion, eventually prompting Calipari to declare "enough is enough."
Perhaps everyone should have known then what he was about to do. Maybe everyone should have known how top-ranked UK (16-0, 3-0 SEC) would respond, too. The dominant form that had inspired talk of a possible unbeaten run through SEC play, it was back with the platoons in an 86-37 win over Missouri (7-9, 1-2 SEC).
"We just needed to get back to what we were," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. "We looked ourselves in the mirror and said we aren't playing the way we normally play. We did that and did a great job with that tonight."
As it always has for this team, that started on defense.
UK overwhelmed the visitors, using a 20-2 first-half run to turn a 12-10 lead into a far bigger one that continued to balloon with every missed Missouri shot. The Tigers shot just 27.1 percent and managed only 0.578 points per possession. In the process, UK allowed the fewest points scored by an SEC opponent since Mississippi State managed 36 in 1987 and rolled up the biggest blowout of a conference foe since a 106-44 shellacking of Vanderbilt in 2003.
"I thought our defensive intensity because of the platoons was back to where it was," Calipari said, later comparing his team to a "buzz saw" the likes of which Kansas and UCLA had experienced in November and December, respectively.
The player who set the tone wasn't even a lock to be on the floor.
Calipari, reflecting on Saturday's double-overtime win at Texas A&M, decided to go back to the platoons. With that out of the way, his next choice was between Hawkins and Derek Willis, gifted yet very different players who have ridden the bench in recent weeks.
Making his judgment based on performance in practice, Calipari told Hawkins on Sunday he would be making the third start of his career.
"Coach, he told us he wants to get back to the Blue and White platoon," said Hawkins, who later revealed he had a sleepless night on Monday thinking about the game. "He told me I was going to be on the Blue one and he just wanted high energy from me and me to be aggressive on offense."
For Hawkins, high energy is pretty much a given.
He was dogged in his 20 minutes, chasing and making life on the Rupp Arena court generally miserable for Missouri's Keith Shamburger with his ball pressure.
"He brings so much energy and so much athleticism to the game," said Aaron Harrison, who bounced back from an off game at A&M with 16 points and five made 3s in seven tries. "And we're all excited for him when he plays well. We're all proud of him. I've seen him get a lot better over these past couple years and I'm proud of him."
Hawkins, true to his humble nature, credited that improvement to his teammates.
"When I'm playing another team's point guard, I feel like it's easier for me to contain them because Tyler (Ulis), he's so quick, he helps me out, like trying to stay in front of a quick guy," Hawkins said. "Andrew (Harrison), he's so big, he's helping me (learn) how to stand up when they get me in the paint and be strong and body them up."
On the other end of the floor, Hawkins displayed the aggressiveness Coach Cal asked of him. He missed all three of his 3-point tries, but took each confidently and buried a pair of shots inside the arc to post six points.
"We know Dom can play," Aaron Harrison said. "He's very capable and he's a really talented basketball player and he showed it out there tonight."
In spite of that talent, Hawkins hadn't played a minute since Dec. 20 against UCLA, when the Cats last blitzed an opponent as they did Missouri. That hasn't been easy on the 2013 Kentucky Mr. Basketball, but he was undeterred.
"It's really hard to stay patient, but with this team you definitely know if you stay patient and get the opportunity you have to go out and ball," Hawkins said. "I was patient enough and Coach finally gave me some time to play and I was able to do well."
Hawkins said he felt his play had earned him the chance to make another start when the Cats hit the road to face a tough Alabama team on Saturday, but he was quick to point out the decision is out of his hands.
That call, of course, belongs to Coach Cal, who was back to his coy, unrevealing self in discussing it.
"I don't know if I'll do it next game," Calipari said. "I may not."
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."