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Kenny Payne on the Vols, toughening up Skal, resting Tyler Ulis and more

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday’s overtime setback against the Kansas Jayhawks in Lawrence was bitter medicine for player and fan alike, but as always there is no rest for the top program in college basketball.

Tomorrow night Kentucky travels to Knoxville to play the hated Tennessee Volunteers in what promises to be another road battle. Associate Head Coach Kenny Payne spoke with the media earlier this afternoon and previewed the Vols; he touched on several other topics as well.

On what to look for if Tyler Ulis needs a break

"He definitely needed a break. At this point, it’s been unbelievable what he’s done.  But we as coaches, we’ve got to come up with something; a rotation, something we can create to give him a break so he can finish games for us."

On what has been considered in order to give Ulis a break

"Every option. Moving Dom (Hawkins) in more, playing Derek Willis. Nothing concrete, but we’re just exploring everything."

On if it affected Ulis playing in the Kansas game for so long

"I don’t know if it affected him. I just thought that we needed a couple of stops and a couple rebounds, and that game never goes to overtime. So I can’t blame him for being tired. He played great. We just needed defensive energy and unbelievable fight down the stretch of the game. And we did for the most part. But it all didn’t go our way."

On if a different rotation could benefit Isaiah Briscoe as well

"No question. We’ve got to find a way to get Isaiah, Jamal (Murray) and Tyler around 30 minutes, 32, 33 minutes a game.  Some kind of way."

On if the guard or forward position is more taxing

"The key to our success right now is ball pressure, so we’re trying to play 40 minutes really pressuring the ball, really dictating the plays, really getting out in transition. So for those three guards (Ulis, Murray, Briscoe), it’s taxing. It’s very taxing."

On when the decision was made that Dominique Hawkins was going to play on Saturday

"Game time. We didn’t know up until when the game started. The way the game was going, we thought he could help us. He tried and did a good job. He missed a couple open shots, but we’re not worried about that. We need defensive pressure."

On why Alex Poythress didn’t want to go to the middle of the floor against the triangle defense

"I don’t know. We work on it every day. The key for an offensive player is to establish the middle of the court. Alex has a tendency of wanting to go baseline and spin it to the middle, and now it’s become predictable. We want him to take the middle first, and then if he has to spin back baseline, that’s fine. But then take the middle of the court first."

On whether the staff was pleased with Skal Labissiere’s offensive performance, specifically in the mid-range game

"We hope so. I mean, we’re not worried about Skal offensively at all. Our big deal with Skal is, will you fight defensively, keep your man in front, block shots and rebound? If he does that, he’ll play as many minutes as he can handle."

On improving Skal Labissiere’s rebounding

"We want him to snatch the ball and work on defensive rebounding every day. We want him working on offensive rebounding every day. He just has to go out and have confidence in doing it in practice no different than he does it in games. We’re not simulating a rebounding drill at half speed when in a game it’s full speed. We’re simulating a game situation.

"Go get that rebound, snatch it and bring it in. For whatever reason, the past two or three games he can’t get a ball. He can do it. In practice he does it, not as consistently as we’d want, but he’s trying. I think it’s mental and he’ll get over it. I think it’s important that he gets over it because we need him on the floor and we need him to block shots and shoot the ball the way he did."

On Labissiere’s positioning in rebounding situations and if it’s a matter of him not being in position or just not being physical enough

"I think it’s a little bit of both. I think some of it is a reluctance to make contact first. We have a philosophy that the aggressor wins, so I’m going to make contact first and I’m going to attack the ball."

On whether Tennessee’s smaller lineup will help build confidence in the Kentucky post players

"I think Tennessee is a very scrappy team. You’re right in that they aren’t that big, but they send four and five guys to the offensive glass at times and this will be a game where we need those guys to step up and play well. Everyone, one through five, needs to step up, rebound well, and fight. At the end of the day, these games are as much about strategy as they are the will to win."

On Derek Willis’ improved play and need to stay out of foul trouble

"No question. He has to be really smart. He’s had a lot of success and it started about a month ago with him embracing rebounding and fighting and defending in practice. And for some reason, thank God it did, it translated to games. From that point to today, he’s been unbelievable. He got in some foul trouble and we like for him to play without fouling. You can say some of the fouls he got were ticky-tac, but that’s the referee’s calls and not ours. Just got to play a little smarter."

On the importance of Marcus Lee’s strong play

"Same thing, same as Derek. Just focus and bring the energy. He makes our team a lot different when he’s energetic. Defensively, when he’s snatching rebounds, when he’s sprinting the floor, getting lobs, we need that from him. It’s vital. When we don’t have that, it hurts us."

On having veteran like Hawkins back against Kansas

"I thought it helped. I thought, you know, that Dom has seen some really tough games, so his experience helps us. We like to go forward. He’s been hurt so much. He had a high ankle sprain and he’s missed over a month. We need him. We need him on the floor. He helps us give Tyler the rest and Jamal the rest and Isaiah the rest that they need."

On "no-catch" defense on Wayne Selden and how often they do that against teams

"If a guy has got it going on. If a guy is an offensive player that can get going, shooting 3s and making jump shots, we’ll do that. Haven’t don’t it a lot but we have done it before. For some reason, he (Selden) got open. We hesitated at times and he didn’t need much room. He let it go. He had a great game. He played well against us."

On what makes Kevin Punter so effective

"He’s (Punter) aggressive offensively. He gets shots. His team needs him to shoot the ball and he does. He does a great job of going to the free-throw line. He’s attacking at all times. He’s a handful."

On the mindset going into tomorrow’s game

"It’s the same every game for us. We’re not the most talented team. We can go to Tennessee and play well and lose. Our guys know that, so we have to go out and fight for every possession, especially defensively and especially rebounding. We’ll manufacture points. The key to us winning is going out and fighting defensively and rebounding that basketball. Tennessee is capable of beating us. We know it. Our team knows it."

On trying to build momentum this week

"Just continue to do what we do. Continue to defend, continue to rebound and continue to fly up the court. To play offense with confidence and just go after people. Play desperately."

On Kentucky recognizing any team can beat them

"For the last few weeks, one of the things that we’ve been harping on is, ‘Guys, we’re not one of the most dominant teams like last year. We can beat anybody, but on the flipside anybody can beat us. So don’t overlook anybody, don’t take anybody for granted. Just know when you step on that court, that team is going play well. Maybe they’re going to play better than they’ve played against anybody else. Most teams do against Kentucky, so just go out there and fight for 40 minutes.’ "

On the loss at Auburn being a wake-up call for Kentucky

"No question about it. I don’t think they’ve played the same since they played us."

On if UK has played different since the loss at Auburn

"Definitely has been a difference. There has been more focus on defending. There has been desperateness about us. We need to continue to do that. I think we have 10 more regular-season games – somewhere around there. It’s coming to an end, and it’s time for us to establish who we are."

On how Labissiere is different from other players he’s coached

"He’s a little bit newer to the situation of having to go through the hard work and having to adjust to it. I mean, Anthony (Davis) was thin as well, but Anthony embraced hard work – not to say that Skal doesn’t. Anthony thought he was 260 pounds. Karl Towns thought that he was without a doubt the best big man in the country that could play multiple positions. This kid just doesn’t know it all yet, but he’s getting better. He’s learning. He’ll continue to learn."

On Labissiere gaining confidence on offense and if that’s translating to other phases of the game

"He’s making shots, no question. I see him trying more. I see him trying better to do the little things we need him to do: trying to fight. We just need him to do a little better. Not on the offensive end. It’s not about the offense. It’s about defending, blocking shots, rebounding. The offense will come."