COLUMBIA, Mo. — Besides winning every game, the other signature constant about this season's Kentucky team has been — believe it or not — inconsistency.
Player after player soars, then struggles. Or struggles, then soars. Or both.
The latest is Willie Cauley-Stein, mentioned as a National Player of the Year candidate a few weeks ago. Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy called him his early favorite for Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
In UK's 69-53 victory at Missouri on Thursday, Cauley-Stein scored two points and grabbed three rebounds. He did not block a shot in 23 minutes. That lowered his averages in the last four games to 4.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks.
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Not the stuff upon which to build a Player of the Year campaign.
"C'mon!" UK Coach John Calipari said as if speaking to Cauley-Stein. "You're one of the best players in the country. Go do your thing."
When asked if he was surprised by Cauley-Stein's recent ho-hum contributions, Calipari went beyond his usual they're-not-robots catchphrase.
"No," he said. "Heck no."
Calipari dipped deeper into thoughtful insight. The truth is our basketball heroes are all too human.
"Let me tell you, all these college players in every program, including mine, you think they're all these confident guys," he said. "Till they miss three shots. Or a rain drop hits them on the shoulder. Then all of a sudden (gasps), 'Oh my gosh.'
"The tough ones will fight through it. But it's a hard deal."
Cauley-Stein is not the only player on this Kentucky team to ebb and flow (they really are not robots).
Devin Booker, who had shot with surreal accuracy against SEC competition (56.1 percent overall, 59.1 percent from three-point range), did not make a three-point shot Thursday. The crowd, especially the Mizzou student section, booed each time he touched the ball. They had not forgiven the son of a former Missouri icon, Melvin Booker, for choosing another school.
The first time the students booed, Booker responded by immediately swishing a pull-up jumper.
But two possessions later, Booker rared back to throw down a dunk in transition. Missouri center Keanau Post blocked the attempt, sending home fans into ecstasy.
"He didn't play with an edge," Calipari said of Booker. "... He acted like the other guy's not playing. That guy is in a fistfight. You're standing there thinking you're skipping and whistling. All of a sudden, he's grabbing the ball from you."
Teammate Andrew Harrison suggested the booing — not to mention the familial emotions — should not affect a player.
"It's all part of going to Kentucky," he said. "You've just got to block that out and play."
True enough. Other SEC outposts all but vibrate in anticipation of beating Kentucky.
But Calipari reminded reporters that Booker is 18.
"I should have recognized he was going to struggle in this venue," the UK coach said.
The rise-and-fall pattern continued at Missouri with:
■ Karl-Anthony Towns, who imposed his will around the basket in the first half. "Then started fading away," Calipari said.
■ Andrew Harrison, who had made only nine of 40 shots in the previous seven games. He led UK with 15 points, played a steady floor game and made three steals (one shy of a career high).
■ The UK team. Mizzou got a lot of mileage out of pick-and-roll plays in the first half. "Our weakside defense wasn't there," Calipari said. The well ran dry in the second half, causing Missouri Coach Kim Anderson to wryly note of UK's adjustment, "The guy on the other bench knows what he's doing."
So how does Kentucky keep winning despite the inconsistencies? Well, it helps having eight healthy McDonald's All-Americans, plus Cauley-Stein. Three or four players happen to struggle, three or four are likely to soar.
"What's happened for this team all year is guys have played poorly and we've still won," said Calipari, who noted how he had to remove Tyler Ulis from the game against Ole Miss. "It's OK. We can win without you. Just play hard. Play with energy. I think that's what makes this team pretty good."
Missouri's Anderson marveled at how UK won by 16 points (a big margin in a slower-paced game) despite making only two threes. Perimeter shooting is supposed to be where UK is vulnerable.
"Our problem is we're not strong enough to fight their depth on the inside," Anderson said. "... When you play Kentucky, it's kind of overwhelming, really. They bring so many guys at you, you think you got one. And then there's another one."