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Booker-Ulis bond helps Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky's most important player enters the Joe Craft Center conference room on a Sunday afternoon and converses with a tone that barely exceeds a whisper. There is a bandage on the right side of his face where a cut suffered during his team's win over rival Louisville a day earlier demanded three stitches.

But chitchat about the Louisville-Kentucky civil war can wait.

This cannot.

Did the 5-foot-9, buck-50-on-his-best-day point guard really stand up to, gulp, 6-11, 270-pound DeMarcus Cousins during a recruiting trip to Lexington?

"We exchanged words and stuff," Tyler Ulis said. "I was exchanging words with him but [Devin Booker] wasn't leaving."

As Ulis bantered with the Sacramento Kings star, Booker, his buddy since middle school, teammate and college roommate, stood with him -- same way he has since they were teammates at a basketball camp for eighth-graders.

The NBA big man had refused to honor Ulis' foul call during a pickup game on Booker and Ulis' recruiting trip to Lexington last fall. So the duo kept the ball and refused to play until he agreed to honor it.

Cousins has accosted -- or hurled -- larger men for less.

Minutes later, Jahlil Okafor, who also was visiting Kentucky that weekend, persuaded Booker and Ulis to continue.

"Those two just start having words back and forth," Booker said about the Ulis-Cousins confrontation. "I'm there with Tyler all the time. Always have his back."

John Calipari's platoon system works because because Booker (9.9 points per game, 46 percent from the 3-point line) and Ulis (3.7 assists per game, 52 percent from the 3-point line) bring so much spice off the bench.

Calipari jokes that the Wildcats -- who kick off SEC play with a Tuesday home matchup against Ole Miss at 7 p.m. ET on SEC Network -- have two sets of twins on their roster: Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison and Booker and Ulis.

"Get the ball to your brother," Calipari tells Ulis in practice.

Calipari replaces his entire starting backcourt with a more effective tandem. Ulis (18th) and Booker (40th) are two of the nation's most offensively efficient players, per Ken Pomeroy's individual ratings.

And they compete with that bravado coaches crave from youngsters.

In a recent practice, Ulis and Booker led their white platoon to four straight wins over the team's starters, the blue platoon. The next day, they lost four scrimmages to that group. Calipari said Booker and Ulis were frustrated by those losses.

"The biggest thing those two add to this team is their absolute competitive fire," Calipari said during this week's SEC media teleconference. "Every day in practice, whatever drill, however we scrimmage, they want to win. When you see how hard these kids play, you see them compete in games, it's because they compete that way in practice, and Devin and Tyler have really driven that part of our culture that we have here."

They're teammates on a Kentucky team that's favored to win the national title and is chasing the first undefeated season since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers completed an unblemished campaign with a national championship.

They're also roommates.

Ulis said Booker is the "neat freak." And Booker claims that Ulis is "real messy ... his whole room."

They do what college kids do. They listen to music. Ulis prefers trap music, a brand of hip-hop that's popular in Chicago, or Drake. They play video games. Well, Booker plays video games. Ulis watches.

Ulis loves to rap and dance. Correction, according to Booker: Ulis tries to rap and dance.

"He thinks he can rap and dance," Booker said. "Neither one. I don't know what got into his head. I'll act like I support him sometimes."

They like to eat together.

Ulis cooks pancakes, his favorite meal and an acquired taste for Booker.

"I mean, he likes pancakes," Ulis said, "but I don't think it's his favorite food."

Said Booker: "I don't like them as much as he does. He actually went and bought a skillet for himself to make some pancakes. He makes me some, sometimes. He's a little stingy with it. He is a pancake lover."

It was a Nike camp in St. Louis for elite middle-school prospects. That's where they met.

Booker and Ulis, both Midwesterners, were paired on a team. And they never lost a game. Ulis was the setup man, Booker was the show. Their Sammy Davis Jr.-Frank Sinatra routine continued at future events, too.

"I was just getting in the lane and dishing it to him," Ulis said. "And he was getting buckets."

Added Booker: "He makes it a lot easier for me. All I have to do is get to the open spot and he finds me. He can just take over games scoring and passing."

Sure, they hit it off. But they didn't contemplate a future together with a powerhouse program. Not immediately, at least. The chapters between those youth camps and their reunion in Lexington were uncertain.

Ulis was too small. To everyone, it seemed. No matter what he did on the court, his size often spawned skepticism about his ceiling.

Those close to him, however, realized that he had a unique blend of speed, tenacity and intellect.

Former Michigan State point guard Travis Walton, Ulis' cousin, earned Big Ten defensive player of the year honors in 2009. Every summer, he'd come home to Lima, Ohio -- where they both grew up -- and challenge Ulis. He'd grab a ball, place cones along that dead-end street next to grandma's house and ask Ulis if he wanted to work with him. He always said yes.

The young point guard, then a fifth-grader, mastered drills that befuddled collegiate athletes.

"I just think he never backs down from nobody," Walton said. "He's confident in himself. ... We knew he was going to be special when he was young. I just always thought his IQ separated him. I was trying to tell [Tom Izzo] to recruit him when he was in sixth grade."

Ulis developed and matured and kept surprising folks. In high school, he moved to Chicago to be near his father and face better competition. There, he conquered one of the most intense prep scenes in the country.

Loyola (IL) offered Ulis his first Division I scholarship. By the end of a high school career that included a McDonald's All American game appearance, Calipari and other elite coaches -- including Izzo -- were pursuing him, too.

At the time, Booker also had earned a rep as a high-level scorer with an NBA future. But it didn't start that way.

He moved from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he lived with his mom, to Mississippi in high school to be closer to his father, Melvin Booker, the former Big Eight Player of the Year and All-American. At first, he hated that move.

He didn't want to leave his friends. And, initially, he didn't understand his father's vision. Melvin Booker planned to tweak his son's skill set and push him around a little bit to toughen him up. How? He'd toss him into 5-on-5 runs with Melvin and his friends. He had to test him. In one heated game, Booker took an elbow to the chest from his father. Melvin Booker wanted to see how he'd react. His son fought back.

Don't let that good hair and smile fool you. Booker is fearless.

"He picked up his competitive spirits and went at me like I was a player at Louisville," Melvin Booker said. "I explained to him, 'Don't back down.'"

Eventually, Booker and Ulis were recruited by the same schools, including the Wildcats. They picked Kentucky, and after they both made that decision, they grew closer. They Facetimed every day as they prepped to link up again.

"Devin and Tyler, they established that bond before they ever touched down in Lexington," Melvin Booker said.

Toward the end of Kentucky's 58-50 victory at Louisville on Dec. 27, Cardinals point guard Chris Jones and Booker verbally jousted. Booker had just hit a big 3-pointer during a late Kentucky rally.

Ulis, who probably was Kentucky's MVP that day, saw the dustup and moved closer. Then, he added a few words to the mix.

"I can't really say what they were saying," Ulis said. "[Jones] was talking a little trash. And you know, that's my boy, so I had to come over, step in a little bit."

They're always together.

On most things.

Their competitive makeups, however, can create conflicts.

Before the season started, Ulis and Booker played a variation of one-on-one called cutthroat. No fouls. You get three dribbles and only one shot. You make it, you keep the rock.

They'd play that game for hours after practice.

One night, Booker pump-faked and tried to draw contact. Ulis didn't like that so he did the same thing to Booker on his next possession.

Booker got angry. Ulis reminded him what he'd done the previous play.

They argued.

Neither would budge.

"We both walked out," Ulis said, "and never finished the game."