What a difference a week’s time makes.
Two Saturdays ago, the proverbial sky was falling in on the Kentucky Wildcats season, and now after impressive back-to-back victories over Arkansas and Vanderbilt, Kentucky appears to be back on track, but huge games with Missouri and Kansas await John Calipari's team this week.
Assistant coach Tony Barbee took time from his schedule to meet with the press to discuss the goings on with the team.
On Cutting Down on Turnovers:
"We’ve been pretty good with our ball security all year long. When you got guards like Isaiah and Tyler and Jamal out there handling the ball, turnovers haven’t been much of a concern for us. We’re a hard team to press in that way. Create turnovers and really when we get a little bit, we start pressing a little bit offensively and that’s when we’ll turn the ball over ourselves. But for the most part we’ve been good handling the ball all year."
On the Changes in the Team’s Defense
"Just a renewed focus on it in practice. We just talked about getting back to our roots and if we wanted to change the direction we were headed. Especially coming out of that Auburn game. There was a renewed sense of focus on sense of urgency plays on defense. That’s where we take pride and it creates a lot of offense for us."
On What Missouri Brings to the Table
"They present a big challenge. If you look at their last three games they're playing very well. They led at Texas A&M late in the second half. They led a lot of the game at South Carolina and played them close, a team that’s been leading the league for most of the year. And they played Georgia well at home.
"So you look at the last three games. They’ll mix up their defenses, with man and they’ve been playing a lot of zone lately. They have some guards. Wes Clark is one of the better guards in the league. You got a senior center in (Ryan) Rossburg. He presents a challenge inside. Their freshman (Kevin) Puryear has been playing well. It’s going to be a difficult game like all are in the league."
On Overlooking Missouri
"Obviously it’s a challenge with younger players. The consistency of not worrying about who your opponent is but just preparing to play your best. We lean on our veteran players to bring it every night. I think Tyler (Ulis) is a guy who brings it every night and plays with a sense of urgency. Now it’s just getting our freshman to keep up to speed. It doesn’t matter who you play, with what we wear against our chest in Kentucky, everyone is going to bring their best."
On Dominique Hawkins’ Status
"He kind of twinged his ankle again yesterday. I haven’t seen him today so we’ll see how he goes today. He said he was feeling better last night so we’ll see how he progresses today in practice."
On if he’s been around another player like Ulis: "No. Especially given his size. The so-called disadvantage that that brings for any player, like we always say, ‘it’s not how big you are, it’s how big you play,’ and Tyler is one of those guys that looks in the mirror and he sees a guy that’s about 6-10, 280-pounds. And that’s how he plays. He doesn’t see (his size) as a disadvantage in any way. That’s a good trait to have. I wish more players had that."
On Jamal Murray and "Winning Plays"
"It has. It's been a progression for all of our guys, not just Jamal. It's been a big learning curve for Isaiah, it's been a big learning curve for Skal, but Jamal was no different. Obviously he's a very talented scorer in a lot of different ways, but just understanding time, score, when to go, when to slow it down, those things are a challenge for all young guys. And he's progressed as good as any of our freshmen."
On Coaching and Teaching Former High School Stars in College
"Well, not only did it work. You were expected to do it at all times. Now when you're one of many, understanding timing, your role, when to do it, time, score. Those things, for a talented high school player, sometimes don't come into your train of thought. But on this level, it's what the game is all about, especially at the guard position.
"You've got to know – when you're an elite scorer like he is, sometimes in your mind, you see it visually. 'I can score anytime.' But understanding when it's that time to go, when it's that time to press and when it's that time to, let's move the ball a little bit and get into a better shot, is difficult to understand, but he's learning very quickly."
On Kentucky Being Everyone’s Super Bowl
"There's no question it is. When you're preparing for Kentucky, this program has been on top of the league for a long time. And every team, like Cal's always joked when he'd come play us or anybody in the league, it's T-shirt night, it's hat night, it's banner night, it's towel night. It's a big game for everybody in this league. Everybody wants to be the best, everybody wants to be on top, and to do that, obviously you've got to beat the program that's been the flagship of this conference for a long time."
On Skal and MIzzou
"It's possible. It's possible. They don't have, in terms of style of offense – it wasn't more so individual matchup, but in terms of a style of offense for matchup for Skal. So this should be a game where he could be more impactful."
Derek Willis’ Play and How It Affects the Team
"Well, it's made a huge difference for us as a team. And the biggest change is not that Derek has gotten an opportunity. The biggest change has been Derek has changed his mental approach to the game. That's been the biggest change, and then coach and as a staff, we saw it in practice. Now all of the sudden Derek deserves an opportunity to play because of his mental approach. He would admit that he’s been a little laissez-faire-type attitude with his approach to practice for some reason, and we’ve been on him about it.
"For some reason, it clicked about a month ago. He must have just told himself, ‘I’ve got a chance for this to work,’ and everything Coach asked him to do from two-handed rebounding to playing tougher – there’s no question what he can do for our offense, being a stretch four and really stretching out the floor. When you’ve got dynamic scoring and driving guards like we do, if you’re playing with two bigs that clog the lane, that people don’t have to guard, it makes it hard then to create those driving opportunities.
"So obviously what Derek has done for this team is open up that lane for our guards. But at the same time, Derek made the change. He knew the expectations and he finally has bought into them."
On the Freshmen Looking Ahead to Kansas
"Yeah, you can, you can, but that’s why you rely on your veterans and your focus in practice. There’s been no talk of the next game around here, but it’s kind of inevitable for younger guys to possibly look ahead. But we’ve got to focus on Missouri. That’s the next game, and that’s the biggest game on the schedule."
On the Freshmen Adjusting from Big High School to College Games
"It’s more so the maturity of the players. You’re talking freshmen. Consistency is always an issue with freshmen. Not just from game to game or practice to practice, but from possession to possession. Again, it goes back to those guys are usually so talented in high school that you can take every other possession off or every third possession off and you can still be OK because you’re just good enough. At this level you can’t. The coaches are too good and the players are too good."
On Kentucky’s Improved 3-Point Defense
"It’s always an emphasis. It’s always been an emphasis here, and it’s always been an emphasis with Coach Cal. I know that’s one of the biggest things he’s always emphasized: We’ve got to limit not only how many you make but how many you shoot. We want to drive teams off of that 3-point line and play at the basket, over our length at the rim. That’s been a big advantage here at Kentucky. Again, there’s been a renewed sense, a renewed emphasis on the defensive end of the floor. That’s where the change has happened, and guarding that 3-point line has been a big key."
On Gradually Getting Better on 3-Point Defense
"Yeah, but it’s always a focus from day one so maybe the guys have finally paid attention to it."