NCAA Tournament

Mark Story: Booker's solution to slump: Keep shooting

Kentucky guard Devin Booker put up a shot over Cincinnati guard Farad Cobb. Booker finished with six points.
Kentucky guard Devin Booker put up a shot over Cincinnati guard Farad Cobb. Booker finished with six points. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — The moment Devin Booker had been craving came 104 seconds into the second half of Kentucky's NCAA Tournament wrestling match, uh, basketball game with Cincinnati.

Rising up from the left wing, the UK freshman guard let fly with a three-point shot.

It nestled crisply through the net.

For a gunslinger mired in a shooting slump, it was exactly what Booker needed.

Except, wouldn't you know it, the officials had whistled a foul prior to the shot.

Booker's trey — the only one he hit in Kentucky's first two NCAA tourney contests — did not count.

On the court, the 6-foot-6 product of Grand Rapids, Mich., by way of Moss Point, Miss., shook his head ruefully and grinned.

After the game, Booker was still shaking his head. "I finally got to see one go down," Booker said. "I thought it might open (the basket) up for me. But you could see, it's still closed."

For Kentucky's NCAA Tournament hopes, the basket being closed to Devin Booker is becoming a worrisome development.

On Saturday, backed by a partisan Big Blue crowd of 21,760 in the KFC Yum Center, UK overcame a spirited Cincinnati upset bid to win 64-51 in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region round of 32.

The top-seeded Cats (36-0) kept their bid for perfection alive and advanced to a round-of-16 matchup next Thursday in Cleveland against either No. 4 Maryland (28-6) or No. 5 West Virginia (24-9).

In Louisville, Kentucky vanquished No. 16 seed Hampton on Thursday night and the No. 8 Bearcats (23-11) without needing much long-range bombing. For the two games, UK made 4 of 15 three-pointers.

In the two NCAA tourney games, Booker shot 4-for-15, 0-for-7 from three-point range. It was the continuation of a trend. In five postseason games, Booker is 10-for-30, 3-for-16.

On Friday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari acknowledged he had talked to Booker about his shooting and mental approach.

"I just called him in and said 'You know, we need you. We're waiting on you. We still believe in you,'" Calipari said.

In his freshman season, Booker has epitomized streaky shooting.

During UK's first three games of the season, he went 1-of-11 on treys. Over the second three games, he was 12-for-17. Then, he went 1-for-11 in the following three games. Then 20-for-28 over the next seven.

However, in the last 18 games, he is 20-for-66.

His shot feels good off his hand, Booker said. "It looks good," he said. "But it's just not falling."

To his credit, in the grind-fest with Cincinnati, Booker attacked the basket off the dribble and converted three layups. He contributed six points and four rebounds to UK's cause.

"If my shot's not falling, I try to assert myself in different ways," he said. "I've been in a slump before. It's nothing new to me."

Booker says all he knows to do is keep firing. "Shooters keep shooting. I've lived by that my whole life," he said.

Aaron Harrison, Kentucky's other shooting guard, seconded the notion that shooters have to shoot their way out of slumps.

"Just gotta make sure your mechanics are straight," Harrison said. "(Booker) will be fine. He's a great shooter."

Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns said he sees no evidence that Booker is losing confidence.

"You don't gotta talk to Devin about that," Towns said. "He's full of confidence. I'm not worried about Devin and confidence."

It does not take the basketball IQ of Brad Stevens to know that, as Kentucky gets deeper into the NCAA Tournament and the competition gets stouter, the chances are very good that a game is coming where UK will not win unless Booker makes outside shots.

Said Aaron Harrison: "We need him to make baskets for us to win the whole thing."

Booker knows that, too, of course. "They've stressed to me that they are going to need me to make shots in this tournament, eventually," he said.

The risk for a shooter in a slump is that it becomes mental. That is especially an issue in the NCAA Tournament since locker rooms are open to media. On Saturday, Booker already sounded weary with being asked what is wrong with his jump shot.

"I understand everyone wants an answer, but I don't know the answer," he said. "But I'm going to figure it out."

Kentucky's dreams of an undefeated national championship could depend on that.

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