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John Calipari previews Vanderbilt, praises Skal, stresses improvements and more

Gunnar Rathbun-USA TODAY Sports

After an impressive win at Arkansas, the Kentucky Wildcats will have a quick turnaround as a red-hot Vanderbilt squad comes to Rupp Arena Saturday.

The Commodores have won three-straight games after a 8-7 start had many wondering if they would even make the NIT. Now, the Dores are finding their groove and hitting on all cylinders they get set to face a UK team also starting to find its groove.

The Cats are coming off an impressive 80-66 win over a Razorbacks program that's had UK's number in Bud Walton Arena. As impressive as it was though, Vandy's 88-74 win at Tennessee was even more dominating as the Dores led by as many a 30 points in Thompson-Boling Arena.

Needless to say, John Calipari knows his Cats have their work cut out for them Saturday, and here's a recap of what he had to say during Friday's meeting with the media.

On Vanderbilt:
"(They're) really good. Really good. Run great stuff. Really can shoot the 3. The biggest team we've played. I mean, they're huge. Their man is better than you think. Their zone, they'll play a zone and space it out. That zone has given us trouble in the past. A really hard game for us. I'm glad we played like we did (at Arkansas) because we have a little confidence. If we didn't have a little confidence going into this game, whew. Because they're good. There' good. I mean, Texas A&M, Vandy are probably - LSU may be in that range - but I think Texas A&M and Vandy, they're both teams (at the top of our league). Vandy, you have to understand, their record is what it is because the big kid (Luke Kornet) was hurt. Now that he's healthy they're probably 9-2 with him - you know, 8-1 with him. They've lost games without him."

On UK playing well at Arkansas:
"Well, yeah, I expect that we win every game going into the game. Knowing that that's a hard place to play (at Arkansas), I could see that we could get beat down there. Derek Willis did what he did in practice for two days. Some other guys did too. Charles Matthews earned his rotation spot back in two scrimmages.

"Skal (Labissiere) was the best of those bigs - it wasn't even close - and then he played that way. The good news is we start our guards were 3 for 20 and we hung around. When your guards are 3 for 20, it's hard. I mean, that you can stay in a game. But, then at the end they're the ones who carried us home. This team is interconnected, and I keep telling you that. They're all connected to one another."

On Skal's progress:
"Oh yeah, he's building his own confidence. If it's me, ‘Yeah, you're OK.' He's like, ‘No, I'm not.' It doesn't matter what I say. It's what he's saying to himself. I think, again, I keep telling him, ‘You've got no pressure on you now. Anything you do now is like, ‘Oh, my gosh!' So just go play.' It was a good effort for him, but it also showed me how we need to probably play him a little more.

"He's probably more of a jump-shooting big man. I want him to be Karl(-Anthony Towns) and be the No. 1 pick, but he's a jump-shooting big man. Now, we're going to work on that other stuff. We're going to continue to try and help him there. Reality of it is the best part of his game is 15-foot shots and making some free throws."

On whether or not this team needed Skal to play like Karl-Anthony Towns:
"Both. Both for him and for us. Now, you think of this team, Alex (Poythress) started the game six points out of eight and three rebounds. And then that was it. But that start - think about if we're getting that from another guy and we could throw it when we needed to get a basket.  The team is different. So, that's why I had hoped it would have been Skal, but it's not going to be. So, it's gotta be somebody else."

On Skal's confidence:
"Well, the first shot he took, I looked and I went, ‘What?' And it went in and I said, ‘It better have gone in.' But I think it built his own confidence and he's gotta—he's got work to do. There's no question. He's gotta keep going, but he's worked in practice. He's trying. He played 20 minutes in that game. That's about the max right now he can play with the condition that he has. And he's working on it, but when he is tired he just stops.

"Like, can't catch a ball, can't rebound a ball, can't fight. He cannot be in the game tired. He's now learning: Just take myself out. Why fight it and look foolish and take away my own confidence. Just come out, which is what he did, in that game. He subbed himself two or three times. First time. The other times, you gotta sub him. You just gave up four rebounds, two dunks and lost two balls in the post. Can't be in.

"Now he's playing. I make a shot, I grab a rebound, I'm exhausted, get me out. Boom. Alright, you ready to go back? He's learning. My biggest thing for all these kids: You gotta lose yourself in the team. What does the team need you to do? What is your role on this team? And they're starting to get it."

On Marcus Lee's foul trouble:
"You gotta be in a stance. You gotta play the guy before he catches it. Most of it's you're in the wrong place because you're standing straight up and down and then you try and play him after he catches the ball. It's just how it is."

On Jamal Murray's shot selection
"The shots that he took in the first half were all good shots. The pull-up shot at the foul line was just not a winning play. We're up 18 and now all of a sudden let's get it 20, 25. But if you look at all these deficits or we have a big lead and it becomes like a close game, he's involved in a lot of those plays. That's what he's learning. That's why he's here. I put him in positions yesterday, some of them he did alright and others he reverted. He's learning. He's learning what it means to play winning basketball. I gotta teach and I gotta do a better job with him."

On Dominique Hawkins' status:
"Don't know. Haven't seen him yet this morning."

On Tai Wynyard:
"He's OK, but if Skal €, if Marcus and Alex don't give us what we need in a game, it appears as though when they start going down that road they can't change. They are what they are. In other words, if I'm bad, I am bad for 40 minutes. I cannot mentally change. I can't change and it's almost like, give those guys a chance then. Let those guys play. They gotta be ready. Tai's still getting in shape."

On defending the 3 better against Arkansas:
"Well, we talked about the game plan and said, ‘You can't do what you did at Auburn.' I mean, we had a guy play a 3-point shooter like that (bends down and puts hand in front of face), said, ‘What do you mean? My hand was up.' Are you out of your mind? They hadn't made a layup.

"They did not make a layup until one minute and 40 seconds because we didn't run back. The kid threw one up and it was an and-one. That's the only layup. Why would you do that? (Mumbles). That's, in this game, we just said, ‘You gotta refuse to lose. You gotta listen. You gotta fight.' And the only way you can do that is together. We know what the game plan is and we do it. You can't act like, ‘Well, I didn't know.' So our whole goal was taking away the 3.

"Make them make tough 2s. We're not leaving the rim. Make them make tough shots and if they can, fine, we go home. You know they can make 3s. You know that. And the guys did a great job. I mean, we had one play where Derek and Jamal just left (Dusty Hannahs). Why wouldn't you both have stayed and gave up the layup? Because you know if you both leave he's making that 3, which he did. So there's still that stuff we're working through."

On how important defending the 3 will be against Vandy:
"It's important, but they also post. They have a good post game. This is a little different. How we're going to go at this is a little different."

On Tyler Ulis' lack of turnovers at Arkansas:
"Well, we were grinding it out a little bit different. We played a little different kind of game. We weren't just throwing it to guys and saying, ‘Take them.' We can't play that way. Again, we're still trying to figure this team out. How do we play? What's the best way for this group to play? But I will say this: If we don't defend €”the whole thing on this team is just guard. Just make sure you're guarding, make it tough on the other team and I'll take our chances offensively.

"We're grinding a little bit more than we have in the past. I told guys: If you are just totally relying on Tyler, I'm taking you out of the game. You have to be responsible for you. If you have a shot, you quickly throw it back to Tyler because you don't want to shoot it, you're out. You're not playing. And I did it twice last night. You're out. You're not doing that to him. He's got too much stuff. I'm putting all this on his shoulders and you're giving him more? Well then why should you be in? (Mumbles). You're not in.

"So I'm telling them, you can't add to what he has to do. You have to do your job. You have to make a basket now and then. We're out there and I'm playing the guys that are playing with confidence and I'm telling them, you gotta take on the personal challenge and, you know, we got better. It was a great win. To win there on the road, they just don't lose many games there. They shoot the ball well; they play better defense. We took it to them. You wish we always played that way, but Alex and Marcus Lee, other than the start of the game, gave us nothing and we still did what we did."

On getting those kind of performances back to back:
"I don't know where we are right now as a team. I'll tell you what, if you're just looking around the country, to win on the road - and then win in a place where they just don't ever lose - to win on the road is really hard. We lost the Auburn game in the last minute 30. We had a two-point lead, we don't run back. ‘Why didn't you run back?' (Mumbles). All we had to do was run back and then make it a tough play.

"Again, that playing, that refusing to lose, that fighting, the battle - we're learning. We're also, with Isaiah (Briscoe) and Jamal, learning how to win. That's a losing play, that's a winning play, that is a losing play. ‘Why did you do that? Why wouldn't you do this?' It's what my job is. I have to teach them. I'm not afraid of it. It is what it is." I told them, I'm going to have fun with this. There's no reason—we are what we are.

"Couple of guys here have to either step up and play or take a backseat. Be the reserve, it's easier. I'm going to say it again: The reserve guy doesn't have to come every day and perform. He's going to perform every two or three games. Then he has a good game and it's, ‘Oh! I wish he played more.' And if he played more, you say, ‘Oh. I wish he played less.' We have to figure out if we have guys in reserve roles, that's where you need to be. Doesn't matter if you're a senior or a freshman. Doesn't matter. Guys have to go do their thing, and that was the first step to it."

On teaching winning plays:
"I'm having to teach in shootarounds. The TV guys watched yesterday, the shootaround. I had to stop them and talk, teach, and, ‘Do it again, do it again. Do you understand?' It wears you out. It tires you out. Like, you just can't stand there and watch. You have to—and you can't let them just play like the way they want to play. You have to stop them because if you let them do what they want to do, you cannot win. You're not winning."

On how often does he have to teach at shootarounds:
"Well, there have been shootarounds like that have been 30-minute shootarounds. Like, just bang, bang, bang, they know it, we got it, you're ready. ‘Alright, let's go do this.' And we all know we're going to play great. Then there's been these, and I've had them before which are like 50-minute, 55-minute shootarounds that I'm exhausted when I leave the court. So like I said, this is a—we're still trying to figure them out, they're trying to figure each other out.

"But I know this: The attitude of refuse to lose, just—now, you may run out of time. The clock may run out of time on you. But it's not because you weren't fighting to win the game. You just didn't have enough time. Needed two more minutes. So hopefully we get back to that, and if we do, we're going to be fine."