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."
Devin Booker scored 18 points in UK's 58-43 win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It reads like a recipe for road defeat in the Southeastern Conference.
Not only did Kentucky manage just three offensive rebounds - nearly 12 below its season average - the Wildcats also went more than 10 minutes in the second half without a made field goal.
Unbeaten season over, right? Wrong.
The way UK was defending at South Carolina on Saturday, it was going to take more than that for the Cats to suffer their first loss.
"It was pretty good," John Calipari said of his team's second-half defense.
UK, only furthering its record-setting defensive pace, held South Carolina to 4-of-23 shooting after halftime. The Gamecocks didn't hit a shot until the 15:12 mark of the second half, meaning they had a field-goal drought of more than nine minutes going back to the first half. Before the game ended with a 58-43 win for No. 1 UK (19-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference), South Carolina (10-8, 1-5 SEC) would also have droughts of 6:16 and 5:55.
Incredible as it may be, it makes sense then that the Cats actually outscored South Carolina by a point during their more than 10 minutes without a field goal thanks to 11 made free throws in 12 attempts.
"Well, they were playing rough ball, you know fouling a lot, so we were just trying to get into the offense," Tyler Ulis said. "It was kinda hard to get into a flow with all the fouls called, but I feel like we executed well, we just were at the line more than we usually are."
Thanks to all those fouls and the lack of second chances, UK attempted only four field goals during the drought, suggesting the Cats weren't actually all that inefficient on offense anyway.
"We end up shooting 46 percent and the greatest thing for me is we had eight turnovers," Calipari said. "That's probably a couple less than I'd like, but it just shows you that we're a team that can play. You can play us physical and we can still do the stuff we're trying to do."
Devin Booker certainly wasn't affected negatively by the physical play.
The freshman guard continued his shooting surge of the last month and a half with two made 3s, but matched it with a burgeoning off-the-bounce game. He scored a game-high 18 points and needed only 26 minutes and nine shots to do it.
"I think me going on this little streak opened it up, 'cause now teams know they have to play closer to me," Booker said. "So I use a head-fake and one or two dribbles and get other people involved."
Booker has a ways to go to match Ulis, his classmate and close friend, in involving teammates. Ulis scored only six points, but had six assists and no turnovers.
With the two freshmen playing well in Colonial Life Arena, a place where UK famously lost in both 2010 and 2014, they're showing no signs of trouble dealing with the rigors of facing big road crowds in SEC play.
"I feel like we're both confident in our games and we just come here and take it like another game," Ulis said. "We love the crowd's reaction to us, the boos and stuff like that, so it's really not a lot of pressure on us. We just come out to play."
As good as Ulis and Booker were offensively, the story remains Kentucky's defense, as has been the case for really the entire season. UK had nine blocks as a team - four by Marcus Lee - and eight steals, holding the Gamecocks to a paltry 0.741 points per possession. In doing so, the Cats lowered their season average to 0.772 points per possession allowed, best in the nation and in the 14 seasons kenpom.com has tracked the statistic.
"It just goes with our team concept -- shutting teams out -- and that's what we try to do," Booker said.
UK surely won't ever pitch a shutout, though there are times it doesn't seem impossible, but that won't stop the Cats from trying. That's why Coach Cal had to issue a mea culpa to his team for a late-game coaching decision.
Around the 13-minute mark of the first half, Coach Cal opted to use a 2-3 zone for the first time during meaningful minutes this season. UK played well in it, but Aaron Harrison - who scored 13 points - committed a foul with seconds left on the shot clock.
A little more than six minutes later, heeding counsel from an unnamed assistant, he went back to it with South Carolina in the midst of one of its long field-goal droughts. Justin McKie promptly made the Cats pay from outside.
"They made a 3 and I apologized to the team," Calipari said.
The apology came because Kentucky has spent months establishing its identity as a team that suffocates opponents with a man-to-man defense, not changing based on a scouting report or an opponent's personnel.
"That's not what we do here," Calipari said.
Calipari already knew that, but Saturday served to reinforce it.
Andrew Harrison and Kentucky travel to face South Carolina on Saturday. (Bob Leverone, UK Athletics)
How things have changed.
In early March of last year, Kentucky had suffered back-to-back losses and sat at 21-8. The second of the two was the most disappointing of the season, as the Wildcats fell behind by as many as 16 points en route to a 72-67 loss at South Carolina.
"I remember we lost," Andrew Harrison said. "It was tough. They were a very good team last year, but we didn't play as well as we should have."
The other Harrison twin, Aaron, would of course say after the loss that the remainder of the season would be "a great story," a promise that drew skepticism at the time only to prove prophetic.
Eleven months later, UK has lost just three games in 29 tries, two to top-ranked Florida and one in the national championship. The Cats, after falling just shy of the title, were back as the preseason No. 1 for 2014-15 and haven't lost since, running their record to 18-0 and reigniting the unbeaten talk that started the previous season.
Now they return to Columbia, S.C. But as much as things have changed, one thing remains the same.
"If we go down there and play like we did last year we'll lose again," Andrew Harrison said.
Last season, in spite of a 14-20 record, South Carolina was able to point to that late-season win over Kentucky as proof the Gamecocks were improving under Frank Martin. In his third season, South Carolina (10-7, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) is offering further proof ahead of Saturday's noon matchup with the Cats (18-0, 5-0 SEC).
"They take on Frank's personality," John Calipari said. "They're balling."
South Carolina has gotten off to a slow start in conference play, dropping four games and three by four points or fewer, but the Gamecocks still check in at No. 48 in kenpom.com's ratings, up almost 70 spots from a season ago. They have wins over Oklahoma State (by 26 points) and Iowa State from the powerhouse Big 12 on the strength of a defense that ranks 22nd nationally in points per possession allowed (0.906).
"They come right at you," Calipari said. "If you drive, you've got three guys running. As you run at them, they run at you. Frank, the one thing I've got to tell you as I watch his team - it's a great concept - they'll pressure you all over the place and deny wings."
The Gamecocks excel at contesting shots and forcing miscues, ranking in the top 40 nationally in both effective field-goal percentage defense and defensive turnover percentage. The Cats will have to respond.
"Got to be strong with the ball," Calipari said. "Got to play through bumps. You got to know that they're coming and find open men."
That's where having two of the nation's top point guards on one roster comes in handy.
UK's two-headed lead guard monster of Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis has combined to average 13 points and 7.7 assists. Both the 6-foot-6 sophomore and 5-9 freshman have had bright moments and a handful of off nights, but it's been Andrew Harrison who has more often drawn criticism.
"When it rains in Lexington, whose fault is it?" Calipari said. "Andrew's fault. There was a car accident on 75, whose fault is it? Andrew's fault. So that's just how it is right now and he has accepted it."
Not only has Andrew Harrison accepted that fact, he also takes joy in deflecting scrutiny away from his freshman teammates.
"I can take whatever anyone throws at me now," Andrew Harrison said. "I know whatever is said doesn't really matter. I've heard it all. I'm just starting to get my confidence back, and just knowing I'm the starting point guard or whatever and I can play just as well as anybody."
Andrew Harrison may be the starter, but that hasn't stopped Ulis from playing nearly 21 minutes per game, a total that's gone up in recent weeks with Calipari more often using them together. Among Coach Cal's many options, a favorite lineup of the two point guards, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson has emerged as a possibility for close-and-late situations.
"It puts two playmakers on the court with me and Andrew," Ulis said. "Then he can play-make it to the basket. It allows him to score more because I like to pass. And you know Book with his shooting ability, and us getting in the lane and finding him, it should be hard to stop us."
South Carolina will try nonetheless, surely confident from what happened not long ago.
"You just have to play your game," Andrew Harrison said. "You can't really worry about last year. Last year was last year. Now we have to go in there for another tough game against South Carolina."