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Booker, Ulis thriving on the road

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Devin Booker scored 13 points and hit 3-of-6 from 3-point range in a 70-48 win at Alabama on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Devin Booker scored 13 points and hit 3-of-6 from 3-point range in a 70-48 win at Alabama on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Armed with a handful of players who bypassed chances to enter the NBA Draft, this was set to be the season Kentucky relied on veterans to get the job done on the road.

Two precocious freshmen, however, have decided they want in on the action.

Three away games into their UK careers, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis are having little trouble coping with life on the road.

"It shows their character," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It shows how much fight and will power they have to win the game. It starts in the gym. They're the two dudes that stay in after, and they're there first. They get their shots up before and after practice, and it starts there for real."

Booker and Ulis combined for 24 points as No. 1 UK ran its record to 17-0 (4-0 Southeastern Conference) with a dominant 70-48 win at Alabama (12-5, 2-2 SEC). They shot 7 of 12 from the field and 6 of 10 from 3-point range as the Wildcats decimated a solid Crimson Tide defense to the tune of 1.25 points per possession and had home fans heading to the exits well before the final buzzer sounded.

This is no new phenomenon either. In three road games - wins at Louisville, Texas A&M and of course Alabama - Booker is averaging 13.7 points on 12-of-23 shooting, while Ulis is averaging 9.3 points and hit a clutch 3 in that double-overtime thriller at A&M.

"Each game that goes by they're building their confidence," Calipari said.

It's scary to think Booker could get much more confident, particularly when it comes to his outside shot.

"Super impressive, especially for a freshman and especially games like this," said Cauley-Stein, who had nine points, five rebounds and two blocks in UK's second straight blowout win. "The crowd's into you, they're bad-mouthing you, they're doing stuff, so to be able to shoot like that is remarkable to me."

The sweet-shooting 6-foot-6 guard, who led a balanced effort with 13 points, has made 20 of his last 28 attempts over UK's last seven games. On the season, he's now shooting 34 of 67 (50.7 percent) from deep, rending his 1-of-11 start through three games a distant memory.

"It's like I'm shooting into the ocean now," Booker said. "It's really coming easy for me. At the beginning of the year I started out in slumps and I kept telling everybody, 'Shooters keep shooting.' That's what I did, and now it's falling."

Though they keep on falling, Booker refuses to force his shots.

"I'm shooting shots that the team needs," Booker said. "Like, for instance, Dakari Johnson was working real well today. So I was throwing it in to him every time, and he was making easy layups for us. And that opened up the 3 for us."

Booker and the Cats went to Johnson when it counted, as Alabama cut an 18-point deficit to nine with 13:14 left before Johnson drew foul, hit a free throw and bullied his way to a layup to spark a decisive 16-2 run. It should come as no surprise that Ulis hit a pair of 3s during the run and Booker another.

"I thought the game was won by Dakari today though," Calipari said of his 7-foot sophomore, who joined Booker in Ulis in double figures with 11 points. "The game was touch and go, and then Dakari just went basket, basket, basket, and the team went crazy because they knew what he was doing."

For a couple games to start SEC play, sharing in and celebrating teammates' success in that way went by the wayside. But with the return of the platoons, that's come back as well.

"Instead of tolerating each other they're celebrating each other," Calipari said. "So it's good. We're a good team. I got players."

Calipari hopeful for Hawkins' return on Tuesday

After Dominique Hawkins was impressive after Coach Cal inserted him into the starting lineup on Tuesday, the sophomore guard was forced to miss Saturday's game after undergoing a medical procedure.

Hawkins traveled with the team to Tuscaloosa, Ala., but was unable to participate in shootaround and missed the game. Calipari hopes Hawkins will play when UK hosts Vanderbilt at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday in Rupp Arena.

Video: Highlights from UK's win at Alabama

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Johnson back to doing it the hard way

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Dakari Johnson had eight points and seven rebounds in UK's 86-37 win over Missouri on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) 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."

Video: Aaron Harrison, Johnson on Alabama trip

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Video: Coach Cal on UK's trip to Alabama

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Dominique Hawkins scored six points and had two steals in 20 minutes on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) 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."

Video: Coach Cal's post-Missouri press conference

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Devin Booker is shooting 16 of 21 (76.2 percent) from 3-point range in his last five games. (Chet White, UK Athletics) 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."

Recent Comments

  • Sandy: Just wanted these young ladies to know that I watched the whole game. I am exceedingly proud of you. Even read more
  • Rao: When Harrison twins drive the ball to the post opponents usually snap the ball from their left hand even before read more
  • Kristi Hazlewood: We love you MiMi! read more
  • CHRIS OSEDO: I love the job Coach Call is doing in UK. I hope my son comes there soon. read more
  • B J Vance: Kudos to the Big Blue Nation who turn out everywhere to cheer the Cats. The very entertaining and knowledgeable Dick read more
  • gerald adams: you done a hell of good job today boys. I,m so prod ove you all for the heart some of read more
  • Silviu Udrea: Huge fan !!! Keep going on :) read more
  • JR: Erin is one dedicated player of the game of softball.......and it would be hard to find anyone who has worked read more
  • Commenter: Both Derick and Dominique should watch Willie's game 3 years back. Compared to what Caulistain then these two players are read more
  • Patrick Quinn: I've always liked Willis...we will need him getting significant minutes during our run..I have faith in his athletic ability...I remember read more