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Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis have Kentucky, UCLA bet with coach

By Alex Butler
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Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis have Kentucky, UCLA bet with coach
Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (L) of Slovenia in action against Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis (R) during the second half on March 21, 2017 at American Airlines Arena in Miami. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

March 22 (UPI) -- There was no shortage of Kentucky Wildcats pride Tuesday in the Phoenix Suns locker room at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.

With Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Brandon Knight, and Eric Bledsoe sitting side-by-side, you can see why some refer to the Suns at 'Kentucky West.'

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That mean's there is no doubt about where half of the Suns' young locker room will be Friday: sitting in front of a TV watching the Wildcats battle UCLA in the Sweet 16.

You can actually bet on it, because they did. The former John Calipari recruits turned one-and-done NBA draftees have wagers on the game with teammates and coach Earl Watson. Watson played for the Bruins from 1997 to 2000, before being taken in the second round of the 2001 NBA Draft. He entered the coaching profession after a 13-year NBA career.

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"We have little bets going on with the team and we play Earl's team, UCLA, so it's a lot of fun," said Ulis, who had nine points and six assists in Tuesday's 112-97 loss to the Miami Heat. "Hopefully we can get to it and win it all."

Ulis wouldn't divulge exactly what the bet was, saying: "You'll see once we do it."

The 5-foot-10 guard is posting 5.2 points per game this season, but has seen just four starts. He was a consensus All-American at Kentucky, averaging 17.3 points and seven assists per game his sophomore season. He was the heart of Calipari's 2014 squad, which posted a 38-0 record, before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

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The former SEC Player of the Year is best friends with Booker. Ulis and Booker have been teammates since middle school. Booker said the Wildcats will "coast" to the school's ninth basketball title if it gets past the Bruins.

"They are just really special players," said Booker, who scored 11 points Tuesday. "To win that championship you have to have some dominant players and they have that. I think if they get past this next game Friday vs. UCLA, that they should be able to coast the rest of the way."

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The Wildcats are 31-5 this season, but fell 97-92 to UCLA on Dec. 3 at Rupp Arena. Booker and Ulis' No. 2 seeded alma mater faces a pesky 31-4 No. 3 seed Bruins squad at 9:39 p.m. Friday at FedExForum. The game is already being billed as one of the best matchups this postseason.

"I like how its how most Cal's teams play," Ulis said. "They play fast They got dribble drive. They have three guards that are very dominant, a big that can finish around the rim, and catch lobs. It's a typical team, but they are really exciting."

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Malik Monk's 20 points per game lead Kentucky. Fellow freshman De'Aaron Fox is posting 16.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per bout. Edrice 'Bam' Adebayo is putting up 13.3 points and 8.1 rebounds, while Isaiah Briscoe chips in 12.5 points per game.

Booker said he wouldn't be against the prospect of the 22-49 Suns adding another star from Lexington.

"Any of them," said Booker, an All-Rookie last season, averaging 20.8 points per game in 2016. "I just like players, I don't go off the certain position we need, I just say bring a player in here. I feel like a lot of them are capable. De'Aaron, Malik, Bam, Isaiah...they have a real talented team and I'm looking forward to see what they do the rest of the way."

He added that the Suns' locker room jabs the former Wildcats, but knows where it stands when it comes to the numbers.

"It means a lot, it feels like everybody in the locker room is against us," Booker said. "We have so many pros, that just comes with the territory at Kentucky. So we like to joke around, especially with coach Earl, who comes from UCLA. They beat us earlier in the year, but now we have them Friday. It's all fun and games, but we know who puts out the most pros."

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The Suns appear poised for a high draft selection, owning the third-worst NBA record. That led pundits to believe the franchise was 'tanking' when it shut down the healthy veterans Knight and Bledsoe for the season.

"Personally I'm just trying to make the best of my opportunity," Ulis said. "We've got a couple guys down. I'm just trying to take the opportunity and play as well as I can. Just play hard and try to get some wins."

Watson, 37, was the youngest NBA head coach when he was hired. He has since been outdone by the Los Angeles Lakers' Luke Walton, who is 36-years-old.

While at UCLA, Watson's Bruins never advanced past the Sweet 16. In fact, his 1997 squad lost to Kentucky in the South Regional Semifinal during his senior season. The Wildcats would go on to win the National Championship that year against Utah. Watson played alongside Baron Davis and Matt Barnes, among others.

He said his young guard Ulis is making himself known in NBA circles.

"They've [Ulis and Alex Len] been playing well together, especially in the pick and roll," Watson said. "Two of the best young pick and roll players in the game. The combination, I would say they feed off of each other pretty well. Great chemistry when Tyler finds him with a pocket pass. Big Al with the floater or layups, he's really good at sealing."

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With not a lot to play for in the standings, the Suns are set on the future.

"It's a young unit," Booker said. "Just competitive. We are all getting a chance to play with each other. We feel like we are the future core and trying to get Dragon [Bender] back healthy and just get on the floor and see what we like. What each player likes. Not often do you get a young team like this playing all together, so we are just trying to find our chemistry this year."

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