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Alex Poythress was a late scratch from UK's win over Boston University on Friday night. According to head coach John Calipari, he'll be out again on Sunday vs. Montana State before his likely return on Tuesday.
.@AlexTheGreat22 is doing a lot better today but we are going to hold him out one more game with an illness.-- John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) November 23, 2014
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.
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."