Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne applauded the Southeastern Conference naming Devin Booker its freshman of the week on Monday. It was the second time in four weeks he was named the league's freshman of the week.
"So proud of the kid," said Payne, who substituted for John Calipari at a press conference Monday. "He's worked so hard from Day One to today. ... What can you say about a kid with a stroke like that?"
Booker, who came to UK billed as a player with a pretty and reliable jump shot, made nine of 18 shots in victories over Ole Miss and Texas A&M last week. That included seven-of-10 shooting from three-point range.
Those games continued a streak of dead-eye shooting by Booker. In the past five games, he has made 24 of 41 shots overall (58.5 percent), including 16 of 21 from three-point range (76.2 percent).
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"I think he's got more in the tank," a grinning Payne said. "I'd like to see him be a little hotter."
Payne suggested that Booker drive more and get to the foul line more. He's averaging only 1.7 foul shots a game.
After the game Saturday, Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy called Booker the "X factor" for Kentucky. Payne endorsed that label.
"If you forget about him, he's going to hurt you," Payne said.
Yet, Booker's hot perimeter shooting is well timed given that opponents are limiting UK's alley-oop dunks by collapsing defenses into the lane. In the past three games (Louisville, Ole Miss and Texas A&M), UK has made only 33.9 percent of its two-point shots. That's down from 54.2 percent going into the Louisville game.
The game against Missouri on Tuesday night holds special meaning for Booker, Payne said. The player's father, Melvin Booker, was a Big Eight Conference player of the year for Missouri.
"This will be a rivalry game for him," Payne said.
'We are it'
There was much talk Monday about UK's need to match the opposition's energy.
"We're just getting to learn every game is a battle," Marcus Lee said. "That's what we're adjusting to. We have a lot of people who forgot (or) didn't expect what our season was going to be like."
Lee said he expected a "big dog fight" in the Missouri game.
"People come to play against us," Payne said. "That should intensify."
To explain opponents' intensity, Payne cited Kentucky's exalted status.
"We are in a place where we are it," he said. "We are the program. Every time we step on the floor, we have to play with unbelievable energy (and) know that other team is going to play out of their minds. ... We have to match or be superior energy-wise and defensively."
On the SEC teleconference earlier Monday, Calipari noted opponents' zeal by referencing something Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody said. Moody scored 25 points against UK, but cramping caused him to leave the game and not shoot three free throws early in the overtime with the score tied. Moody has made 90 percent of his free throws this season.
"It doesn't get worse than that, especially in the second half when we had a chance to beat the No. 1 team in the nation," Moody said, according to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. "It's part of life. I had to take it how I got it."
Lee a 'winner'
When asked about Marcus Lee, Payne said, "Marcus Lee has to go out and play with extreme confidence. Marcus Lee is a winner. Maybe not a great skilled offensive player. But he's a winner. We need his energy, his confidence and his defensive effort."
Calipari wants to develop Lee into a Willie Cauley-Stein type of defender, Payne said. He wants him to defend multiple positions.
When asked whether Kentucky might switch Tyler Ulis to starting point guard in place of Andrew Harrison, Calipari answered immediately and definitively.
"No, no," he said. "I'm good."
Calipari said each player has had his ups and downs this season. Ulis hit the big shot at Texas A&M, but Ole Miss attacked him four days earlier.
"Everybody is watching spots of this, spots of that," Calipari said. "I'm watching a full body of work."
Auburn's Cinemon Bowers, who is 6-foot-7 (and 278 pounds), scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against Missouri.
"We will be undersized no matter who we put out there," Mizzou Coach Kim Anderson said. "A huge key is us being able to compete on the boards, and keep them from just getting a ton of second shots."
Missouri has been out-rebounded this season 35.0-34.3.
Who to stop?
Mizzou takes pride in having limited the opposition's leading scorer below his average in 10 of 15 games. Of course, the problem against Kentucky is identifying that player. Eight players have been UK's leading scorer in games this season.
Brad Nessler, Dick Vitale and sideline reporter Shannon Spake will call the game for ESPN.