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John Calipari previews ETSU, talks Sacha, Hami, turnovers and more

Is Sacha a starter now, Hami’s improving shot, the early signees and more from John Calipari’s preview of ETSU.

Chris Humphrey

The Kentucky Wildcats will be back in action Friday night, as the East Tennessee State Buccaneers come to Rupp Arena.

The Cats are coming off a hard-fought loss to the Kansas Jayhawks in the Champions Classic. Even John Calipari didn’t expect his Cats to have a chance to win it at the very end, and while they came up short, he loved the fight they showed against a veteran championship contender.

Calipari also expressed pleasure seeing his young Cats make it to class early Wednesday morning, just hours after getting back from Chicago.

“They all went to class. Every one of these kids went to class. I can’t believe it. I wouldn’t have went to class. Just telling ya,” said Calipari. “You couldn’t have dragged me out of bed in four hours, and then said, okay get up and go to class. I’ve got a great group.”

Here’s a recap of everything Calipari had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:

On Sacha Killeya-Jones being a possible starter …

“You know, I’ve just got to keep watching because he was really good. He broke down some and did some stuff, but every one of them did some stuff. What I liked was his energy. He tried. He was in the gym after we got back that day. I got in and opened the window and he was in there shooting free throws. So, he is more committed than he has ever been in his life. Everybody has got to accept that he is still young now. He was 17 last year. Now he’s like 18. This kid is the age of a freshman, but I’m proud of him.”

On Sacha Killeya-Jones hitting jump shots but struggling at the free throw line …

“Mostly mental. There will be games where he makes every one and when he misses one or two he can’t make any. Mental.”

On Hamidou Diallo’s hitch in his shot and how you remove it …

“The biggest thing is that is has to be volume shooting. You’ve got to get him to shoot it the right way over and over and over. What happens is there will be times where you’ll have slippage in the game. And so, he will go and it’s not completely done, it just takes time. He’s worked at it. He’s spent time at it. He’s like 100 percent better. People watch him – and he’s trending the way you’re supposed to go. Now you’ve got to just keep working in that direction.”

On Hamidou Diallo’s work ethic …

“I just saw PJ (Washington) in a total sweat when I just walked in and I said, ‘That’s great.’ We only have so much time in the day. I can’t spend 30-40 minutes on shooting. So what does that mean? You’ve got to do that yourself then. You’ve got to get in that gym, you’ve got to spend time, you’ve got to walk across the street – walk 12 steps – and you’ve got to go in that building and grab a manager and shoot. They can’t be tip-toe shots; they’ve got to be game shots. What I was pleased with – and I didn’t get on them about it – we didn’t get home until about 3:20 a.m. That’s when I got home and pulled in. Why are we playing games this late? I have no idea. They all went to class. Every one of these kids went to class. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t have went to class. I’m just telling you, you couldn’t have dragged me out of bed in four hours and then said get up and go to class. I’ve got a great group. One of the things I want to tell them is I kind of thought we were going to get smashed up there. And at the beginning of the game, a lot of people thought we were going to get smashed up there. And these kids fought. We still don’t know what we’re doing. There are so many things that I needed to do in that game, but I’m trying to talk them through it. But it’s hard. I don’t want to give them too much because I’m more concerned about their fight and their aggressiveness and their attacking mode. My stuff is mostly about, right now, about spacing the court the right way. When you get double-teamed, when you’re post feeding, where are post feeding from? The spacing so that we can drive the ball. Those are the kinds of things I’m trying to hit them with. There are things that happen in the game that they’re just not going to know. Here’s what it becomes: fight like crazy, talk, see it and fix it. That’s the best I can tell you. Talk to each other. See it and fix it. You know, I’m going to try and put them through some situational stuff today. Going to show them the last three, four minutes of the game today so they can see it and I can talk them through what was good and what wasn’t good.”

On his halftime interview with Maria Taylor …

“Was it controversial? What I did was, I grabbed her arm – and if you know me, when I’m talking I don’t remember anything around me – and I started squeezing her arm when I was talking about rebounding. I forgot I was holding her arm. And that’s why I said, ‘Uh-oh.’ But, no, she’s a good girl. Maria and I are fine. If it became an issue, it’s kind of like anything I do that becomes an issue, isn’t it?”

On taking less money from TV so there would no more late games …

“I would do it, just as long as they don’t cut my pay. I think it’s a great idea. [Laughter]. Alan (Cutler), why are you laughing back there? You have your first communion money. No, it wouldn’t be first communion. What would that be? Bar mitzvah money?”

On being named to the NABC ad hoc committee on issues currently impacting college basketball …

“They asked me to be a part of it, yeah. Look, I hope I’m a voice for the players on this. And when I hear it get too tilted toward the game of basketball or the coaches, then I will chime in and make sure that we stay focused on these kids and try to be fair – with all of them. That decisions all have intended consequences if you’re not realizing this is about these kids, and whatever we do should be in their best interest. If we do that then it will all be good, hopefully. They asked me to do it. I agreed to do it and I would say that would be my part of it.”

On the turnovers vs. Kansas …

“Spacing was a lot of it. Making the hardest play was a lot of it. I’m going to show them the 18 turnovers here in a minute. Show them the offensive rebounds that Kansas got in a minute. Show them the last four minutes of the tape and then we’re going to practice. I’ll let the coaches do offense and defense after practice because I want to make sure that we get a good hour and 45 minutes in.”

On if playing Kansas early in the season is a good teaching experience …

“Well, the biggest thing you (take) out of a game like that – you have all freshmen, a couple of sophomores who haven’t played. Basically all freshmen, really, and they didn’t wilt. And they got down twice, first half, second half and they didn’t. Good sign. Now, execution, creating shots, some of this – and I’ll be honest with you most of it is on me to put them in a better position. Teaching them how to win. I’ll give you an example: In those situations, you don’t take a shot unless you think you can make it, or you have a chance to be fouled or we have a chance to rebound it. You can’t just shoot a ball, you can’t just shoot a fade-away. You gotta shoot the shot. Either I’m gonna get fouled, I’m gonna make this or we’re gonna rebound – or don’t shoot it. Simple. And then on defense we’re gonna give you one contested, tough 2. We’re not giving you an open 3. We’re not giving you something around the goal. You’re gonna take a tough 2 and we’re gonna rebound like crazy. That’s winning basketball. It’s not brain surgery. That’s winning basketball. I’ve had people say, ‘Why don’t you press and go all over the place?’ Well, in the half-court when you’re 6-9, 7-foot, 6-10, 6-6, 6-6 it’s really hard to score. And Kansas found that out. We’re really hard to score on. Spreading the court, and giving them easier opportunities, I don’t know if that’s the answer. But if you’re saying, how do we be a little more disruptive, you’re probably right. What else can we do to be disruptive? How about this: Are we ready to move to that yet? We’re still worried about staying in front of people. Let’s worry about staying in front of people. This is gonna be a process, folks. We’ve all got to accept it – me more than you. I’ve gotta accept it. Gotta stay positive. The practices, I’ve gotta keep it real and be tough. I just have to stay positive during games, and I’m trying really hard to do that. And let me say this, at my age it’s very difficult to accept some of this stuff, but I have to because they’re just too young.”

On the early signees …

“The one thing here that matters more than anything else is character matters because we’re dealing with a lot of families. You’re not just gonna go out and sign somebody to sign somebody. We don’t do that here. So with Immanuel Quickley – who was at the game yesterday, Tuesday I’m sorry. Seems like yesterday. Just got up today. With Keldon Johnson, with Tyler Herro, we’ve got competitive fighters who wanted this in the worst way. They didn’t shy away from it. They’re not worried about sharing. They understand what this is and they wanted to be here. Now, my guess is we’ll probably try to get one more, maybe two, maybe and that all depends on how this unfolds. But you’re talking terrific basketball players, great kids. I can’t beg kids to come here because then it’s not the right place. This isn’t for everybody. This is a place – you have to want to be here and you have to want what this is about, which is it’s not gonna be about you; it’s gonna be about your growth. It’s gonna be about how much better can you get? It’s about seeing the best version of yourself on and off the court. If you just want to come here and play and show like I’ve already made it, I just want to come here and have a year, it’s not the place to go. Just don’t come here.”

On if they get in late-game situations in the next few games, does that change his focus in practice …

“We’re going to work on it today. I’m going to try a couple things. I want to see what works for this group and what guys are capable of. I’m still learning about them; they’re still learning about me. We’re going to do some different things today. I’m putting another little thing for Kevin Knox. I want to have one more thing we can go at him with. But again, guys, the basic fundamentals of this, of being able to stay in front of your man; being able to see the ball so you can help; being able to block out and rebound; on offense, it’s not there can we create a good shot that either you can make or get fouled or rebound. How about we get that down and then we’ll about all the other (stuff). I mean, I didn’t think – I thought we could have got a better shot a couple times down and I think we looked a little disorganized. Guess what? We were. You can’t blame the kids. And I said this about PJ: I thought PJ would have a big game against these guys, and they went and double teamed. It wasn’t – we haven’t worked on it. I told you the last time, we’ve just kind of covered it. And it took PJ out of the game. Well, that’s more on me than it is PJ. And what happened was our spacing; not anything else. We had guys – ‘You’re all on the wrong spot.’ You had one guy covering three of us. What? We were turning it over and just – and normally you guys know, historically we get double teamed and it’s what? It’s a layup, it’s a basket, it’s a 3, we swing the ball and something good happens. You try to – like, Kansas tried to make that their strength. Well, then you make that their weakness. Their strength was them trapping us in the post. OK, we’re going to make that your weakness. We just weren’t ready to do it. And still, how about this, guys? I think it was a tie game with 40 seconds to go or 50. We had a chance to win that – on the road, on national television, biggest game of the year, country’s watching, most of them were rooting for us. [Intentional pause by Calipari followed by laughter from the media]. And you know what? What’s the laughter about? And you know what? We still had our chance with a bunch of guys who were just on their senior prom six months ago.”

On jump shooters in the old days having their legs together when they shoot but Diallo’s being a little more open …“He’s still learning. My thing is, I like him getting to elbows and pull-ups. That’s his game. He’ll make a 3 if it’s inside and out. But, you know, I’ve gotta do some stuff to get us playing a little faster. I’m going to try some stuff today. I don’t know who made the – I’m still mad – why are we playing Friday games? Why are we – I don’t know. We’re playing every Friday. Like, Friday? [Reporter: It’s a football school]. That’s true. Don’t want to step on football. I don’t know what and why we’re playing on all these Fridays, but we don’t have the time to do all the stuff we’ve gotta do and I’m just kind of picking and choosing. ‘Let’s work on this.’ And then as we go, hopefully by, you know, we hit January, we’ll have everything to where we’re not perfect, but we’ll have an idea of how we’re playing to win the game. I’ve just gotta teach them how to win these close games. And when we played against Vermont, you saw they didn’t blink. They didn’t blink. They went right down the stretch. They knew how they were going to get a shot. They knew how they were going to play. That’s a veteran team; they’ve been together for three years. That’s what happens to a veteran team. We’ve got to teach that in a short period of time.”