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John Calipari talks UT win, injuries, empowering players and more

John Calipari has done a great job coaching this team despite its deficiencies and a host of injuries.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky finally got revenge over Tennessee as the Cats cruised to an 80-70 win Thursday night over he Vols.

It was a game that saw junior forward Derek Willis and freshman guard Jamal Murray combine for 53 points and the Cats hit 11 three-pointers en route to UK's 20th win of the season. It was also the Cats 10th win in SEC play as they've climbed into first place by themselves for the first time this season.

It's been quite a coaching job for John Calipari in finding the right combination of players to use and how to effectively utilize their skills. It took awhile, but he appears to have found the right mix as UK has reeled off four straight wins by an average margin of 22.5 points.

Here's what Cal had to say following the win over Tennessee.

On what happened to Marcus Lee
"His back tightened up, so didn't think he could go. That was fine, it gave Isaac [Humphries] a chance. I thought Isaac was tremendous for the minutes he was playing. He's just got to get on the floor more. He's got to be out there. I thought he tries and he fights so I was happy with how he played.

"I told - Tyler Ulis passed on good shots and took tough shots. I said you can't do that. And if you go 1-for-12 and we lose a game because you're taking open shots and they're not going, that's fine. But you can't pass on open shots and then take tough shots. I thought Jamal [Murray] was good, and obviously Derek [Willis] offensively did what they had to for us to create a gap. So it was a good game.

"We didn't have the energy that we've had in a couple of games, but I'm telling you, they're not machines. It's hard in every game. We had three games in five days. I said would you rather be practicing or playing games? Playing games. So we've got a tough road ahead of us, but that's fine."

On Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray rebounding well after Marcus went out
"
It was even before because he wasn't getting balls and one-handed rebounds. I just said go get balls. Isaiah, he's just got to take shots and not worry about missing. He's shooting way better in practice, and I'm even saying our post players are scoring in practice, and they're just not carrying it over to a game right now, but they will.

"The same with Isaiah. He didn't have to make every shot. Just there's a couple if he made it creates a gap especially when they're not playing them. It makes them pay for that. Like I said, we're defending better. We've defended way better than we did up there. We still broke down some, but we did a better job today.

On Murray getting to free-throw stripe more
"It's exactly what we want. How we want him to play. He took one bail-out three and he knew it. I said ‘why'd you do it?' What we were doing is we were drag screening, which meant the whole lane was open. So whoever had the ball, all you had to do was beat somebody out of bounds. Other than that one, I thought he played an outstanding game. He's trying to defend better. Couple breakdowns defensively, and it's mostly that we're not talking and communicating.

"But, you know, again, he goes 3 for 6 from the three. That's perfect. Then get your other baskets going to the rim, and ones, make free throws, 9 out of 10, nine rebounds. It's a good game. Two assists, a steal, a block. I mean, he did a little bit of everything today."

On how Jamal's approach has changed
"Well, again, instead of making hard plays, like ‘I got this lay-up, but you watch this.' You try to explain to him really, really good players make hard plays look easy. Bad players make easy plays look really hard. And he started the season, that's what he was doing.

"So you saw turnovers like ‘why is he doing tough shots?' Now if he has a shot, he's taking it. He's getting the ball by the man, so he's creating fouls. You know, he's creating for his teammates.

He's becoming -- he's a big guard and a well-rounded guard who can play and pick-and-roll, and he can handle, he can score it. He's a big lead guard is what he is.

In what ways Isaac Humphries has improved the most
"Well, he just fights. He goes after balls, and that's all you want guys to do. You're not going to get them all, but try, attempt. He's not afraid to contact. When there's contact, he's in the middle of it somehow, and it gives us what we need. I mean and he waited a long time to get this opportunity. Now he's got an opportunity to play and he's taking advantage.

"But, again, if we're without Alex [Poythress] and Marcus Lee and we go to Texas A&M on game day with a day off, not going to be easy."

On how UK defended Kevin Punter
"Well, we played that middle pick-and-roll to where, if we played it so we could switch it or stay, depending on what they did, and it gave them no easy baskets, which they got a ton of those up there.

"The guy that hurt us was the [Armani] Moore kid, and again, what he did was he beat us on the bounce. He had 15 in the first half or 14 in the first half. Again, he was driving right and he kept beating us on the bounce. He's a strong kid, and he hurt us on making shots in the first half. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds.

"But the kid, Punter didn't do as much, but again, he had 19 points. It's not like we shut him out."

On Derek Willis
"I think as he defends better and rebounds even better and becomes where he enjoys physical play like he wants it like ‘this is how I want to play,' he becomes as good as anybody. Think about it, he's 6'9, 6'10. His arms make him about 7'2. Think about that.

"He's making free throws. He's confident. He takes responsibility when he's playing poorly. He's not looking to make excuses, and everybody, you know, Tyler didn't play great today, nine assists, two turnovers. He didn't play great today. He didn't play where he had been playing.

"But what's changed our team is Derek. He made us a totally different team. The minute we said -- then you say why didn't you do it earlier? Didn't know. When we went to it, it was obvious everybody could see he just changed our team. The other thing is he's coming every day. Doesn't mean he makes shots every day, but he comes every day and gives you everything he has."

On the Thursday-Saturday swing
"Probably the guys that played a lot of minutes will do treatments and stretching and that kind of stuff, and then have the guys that didn't play as many minutes do individuals and then we'll come together and maybe script some of our stuff that we want to use against them. Then we'll probably walk through their stuff before we get on the plane and go down there and that will be about it.

"We'll have a shootaround the day off, get a great shootaround in, and let's go play a ballgame against a really good team. They just won their last game against Mississippi down there, and they won by 15. They played Tuesday, so they've got a little gap in between the game.

"But like I said, if it's practice for three days or play a game, I think all of these kids would rather play games."

On Cal's players becoming more empowered

"Yeah, I think last game, the best part of last game is I could step away -- didn't do it on purpose -- but I could step away and see that this team was empowered. That they were running and doing the things that we had taught and they didn't need me there.

"There were calls from the sidelines, so it wasn't just random stuff. We watched tape, who made that call, we made that call. Who did that? We did that. So it wasn't just random. There were things we grounded out, guys played aggressive, and I walked away saying this team is empowered now.

"They need to take us for the drive. It's not me driving them anymore. It's not me battling them anymore. I don't need to. Today I had a couple guys we're telling you how to play, just go do it.

"So there were a couple guys we got on and mostly just for scrappiness and stuff like that. They're dragging us now, and that's what I try to do every year. If I don't have a team empowered and it's us and we're dragging them, it's hard to advance.

"If your team's empowered and they're playing and holding each other accountable, I don't have to do it, they're doing it more than I am, that's the way you want it."

On how quickly Cal empowers his teams
"It all depends on the team. And sometimes it's my view of it too, and sometimes I'm wrong. Like this team, I did not think they were ready to say let's go do this. Then I sat back and I watched and I'm like, they are. They are ready.

"Yesterday's practice and the day before, you're talking about short bursts, let's go. And again, I think Tyler, they're feeding off Tyler's confidence, and he is helping all of those guys be confident. He really is.

"Like I said, I know there are some really good players out there in this country, but he's got to be in the equation for Player of the Year what he's doing, the numbers and what he's doing for our team, phew.

"And if you don't think he's very good, you better hope you don't play us. ‘Not that good. He's small.' Okay. Then the game's over and you say, ‘oh, my gosh, he controlled the game.' If you remember early in the year, I told you, he didn't know how to lead off the court. He's now leading off the court.

"They started a breakfast club, he and Isaiah, and all of a sudden they're dragging guys in with them. Sometimes there's 12 of them there in the morning. I don't know. I don't see it. I don't ask about it. It's their choice to do it. They're probably doing it four days a week, and that was him and Isaiah, which it's a big step.

"He's talking more. He's talking to guys off the court. I told him, you can't just lead on the court. You've got to lead off the court. They've got to know you're there for them. He's truly a servant leader right now."