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Kentucky Basketball: John Calipari recaps wild win over Texas A&M

Coach Cal talked toughness, Vanderbilt, PJ and more.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Without starting point guard Quade Green and with leading scorer Kevin Knox in early foul trouble, Kentucky bounced back from Saturday’s loss to Tennessee with a 74-73 home victory in Rupp Arena thanks to 18 points from freshman Hamidou Diallo.

Despite only having seven first-half minutes from Knox, Kentucky lead the Aggies at half 37-35 with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander picking up the slack where Green left off. Gilgeous-Alexander would finish the game with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in 39 big minutes for the freshman point guard.

Knox, who had been in somewhat of a shooting slump in three of his last four games, shot a perfect five of five from the field, with nine of his 15 points coming in the second half.

Texas A&M is a strong team; perhaps the strongest SEC team to start conference play 0-4...ever. While injuries haven’t helped the Aggies this season, they had all their top players back for Tuesday’s match-up with the Cats. Hats off to Kentucky for pulling it off with only seven of their scholarship players in uniform tonight.

Here’s what Coach Calipari had to say at his post-game press conference, courtesy of UK Athletics.

Q. Did you see the type of toughness you wanted?

JOHN CALIPARI: Toughness doesn’t mean roughness. Toughness means that you’re engaged, that you’re playing people before they catch the ball, that you’re meeting people before the ball hits the rim when you rebound, that you’re sprinting the floor every time and bouncing, and you’re talking. We got closer. But still that’s going to be a work in progress. Until we get really good at that, we’re going to be who we are. Every team that plays us is going to have a chance.

I mean, I got to give Billy (Kennedy) and A&M credit for the end of the game. They had a chance to beat us. Had a chance. It was like, wait a minute. You miss a couple free throws. How about we were going to switch everything and we left the man in the corner? Yeah, that’s not toughness. See, that means you’re not engaged in what’s going on.

We told them, we’re switching everything. That guy left the corner man. Thank God he missed. I mean, there was another play, an easy switch on a pick’n roll between two guards. Guys didn’t talk. The guy rides right down the middle, shoots a layup. What? You can’t have those. That’s a lack of toughness. You’re not tough enough to stay engaged. Fumbling balls because you’re waiting on contact. You can’t. Catching the ball where you need to catch it. Who does that for us? If you’re watching the game? Most of you don’t watch it. Who is able to catch the ball where they need to catch it almost every time?

Q. P.J. Washington and what he did tonight?

JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, Larry (Vaught) has been around a hundred years. The rest of you were so quiet because you don’t know s---. Excuse me. And instead of saying the wrong name, you stay silent. Larry had the courage to step up and say P.J. He is tough. I just asked him, he has to take the leadership of this team. He has to do it now. He’s the toughest guy. If a guy is not doing what he has to, you have the ability and the right now to tell him.

I asked the guys after, because I told them prior to the game, when I was at UMass my last year, the year we beat Kentucky. We played five guys. Two guards played 39 minutes, everybody else played 37. I told them that before the game. After the game, I said, You three or four that played the game every minute, how do you feel? I love it. Would you like to do this every game? Yes. So the rest of you can stay hurt. They’re fine.

Guys would like to play every minute of the game. The zone, we did some half decent stuff. But we went man, they’d score five straight times. It was, like, you know, thank goodness I have Tony (Barbee) on the staff, taught me some zone stuff, and I have the courage to do it.

But we won a good game. I mean, folks, just understand, A&M lost three players. They were No. 5 in the country. They beat, I believe, West Virginia. They lost to Arizona. I watched that game. They could have beat Arizona easily. It was a touch-and-go game. They have three guys injured. I want you to understand, if we have three guys injured on this team, we’re not winning. Now, me saying that, could have beaten us, could have beaten LSU. Billy is doing a heck of a job a little shorthanded. They’re going to be fine. They’ll be fine.

Q. I know you missed some free throws late in the game there. There was a stretch at a critical point when you made six in a row. What did you think of that?

JOHN CALIPARI: That was good. Those ones at the end finish off the game and give them no chance. If you want to be fouled late, you got to do it. The other thing is we turned it over twice. Both of them are drills we work on, pivoting, pivoting, pivoting. Every timeout, I said, we have two timeouts and the tie-up is ours. Hand them the ball, just hold it tight. We’ll get it on the side out. The next guy loses it. That’s, again, that toughness I’m talking about to really be engaged and focused in on every possession. It’s not just roughness. The other side of this is what these guys need.

Q. What is Quade’s (Green) situation? What did you think about playing and winning without him?

JOHN CALIPARI: No, we did good. I thought Brad (Calipari) did good for his couple minutes in there. We had to put him in. We had fouls. He went in and did good. I wish he would have made that shot. But I thought he did good. The guys gave him a hand after. It just shows that if he needs to go in the game, he can do it.

But, you know, again, we need to be a little more willing passers. I had to work on the lob yesterday in practice. I’ve never worked on it. We just throw it. Well, this team needs us to work on the lob pass, like you drive and throw that thing up to the goal.

I like Hami’s (Hamidou Diallio) body language and his act today. Here what is I’m saying. If you want to be tough, you can’t try to be cool, you can’t try to be cute, you can’t try to be Hollywood. You can do those things, but you’re not a tough, focused, engaged player. So what I saw today from Hami was an engaged player. He made some mistakes. He broke down a few times. But he’s getting better, he’s getting closer.

Q. Cal, did you know that Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) could play 39 minutes at that level all the way through? Anything about tonight surprise you with him?

JOHN CALIPARI: No. He did ask Quade, Are you going to be hurt next game (smiling)?

Q. John, this toughness you’re talking about, how much of that can a player learn, can you coach, and how much is the personality trait?

JOHN CALIPARI: Some of it is how you think. Give you an example. We had a kid here in 2012 that went one for eight or one for seven in the national championship game, walked in at halftime, was tough enough to say, I can’t make a shot, I’m going to get every rebound, I’m going to block every ball. You score. Darius (Miller), make shots. Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist), you guys go do it. Marcus (Lee), go do your thing. I’m going to do mine blocking and rebounding.

That’s a tough player. Versus walking in with a body language that, I can’t make a shot today, I can’t believe this. You have no toughness. You have no toughness. Tough player deals with what’s there and responds to it. So I’m talking a lot about body language. Body language screams. It screams for everybody to see. In most cases it’s an immaturity thing. The second part of it is, a little lack of toughness, mental toughness, that I’m not getting broken down because I missed a couple shots, fumbled a ball, missed a free throw. I don’t care. I’m tough.

I didn’t think I had to teach them this, but I pulled out the toughness sheet and we read what toughness is. As I read it to them, Are we that? No. Are we this? No. Are we this, this, this? No. Do we talk? No.

My point to them is, how we think has to change if you want how you’re playing to change, how you approach this stuff. I’ve had to do this with every team, probably more so with this team. But I’ve not had a team this young before.

Q. You said on your radio showed yesterday that Jarred (Vanderbilt) changed the practice. What can he bring to this team? How close is he to getting in the game?

JOHN CALIPARI: Yesterday and even today, I loved him in the shootaround. He’s just not mentally ready to go on the court. I basically told him, Listen, when you go in, you’re going to play seven or eight minutes a half, limited minutes for a while. I’m going to put you out there, let you run around, let you feel good about yourself and you’re out. But he’s going to have to make that decision. It’s more mental. I mean, he can play. He couldn’t play 40 minutes or anything like that, but he can play. What he does, I never remembered him being as physically strong as he is. He changed up practice. It was physical.

I’m going to tell what else Jarred is. He’s a willing passer. When he gets it, the other team loves it because that team that’s playing with them know he’s passing. He’s a willing passer, which this team needs. It would be nice, but I’m not challenging him. I’d like it to be his first game, a home game, so he can get some love, kind of work through what he’s got to work through. I’d rather have that than a road game. But I’m going to leave that up to him.

Q. How do you balance with P.J. being the leader and kind of the rock, with missing free throws down the stretch when you expect a lot of close games?

JOHN CALIPARI: He made the ones that stretched the game and got us where we were. He missed some ones down the stretch. Now I will put the ball in his hands late to make him get fouled so that you’re going to have to make them.

If it costs us a game somewhere along the game, it helps him get to understand, I’m not missing these late. And Kevin missed those late. I mean, we got to have them at the line, then they’ve got to do it themselves. It’s not me cheering them on, You’re all right, you’re going to be good. It’s them having demonstrated performance late in a game, making those free throws.

But when you watch P.J. today, can you see how bad we were missing him at Tennessee in the second half? Had no chance of winning the game without him on the floor, at least 15 minutes. No chance. Their team just went to work on us. It was like a combination.

Q. Kevin (Knox) did have 15 points tonight.

JOHN CALIPARI: He was good. The second half of the second half, he was really good. That’s what we should expect from him. He’s one of best players in the country. But you got to come up with balls. You got to play tough. He did late. Did you see the layups he made, the plays he made? He’s capable of that. Well, why would I settle for threes and perimeter shots? Because they’re easier. It’s easier. I may turn it over, they may grab me, I may miss it. That’s young. Again, that toughness that we’re looking for.

Let me just say this. Where they are now, you have to admit, P.J. is not even the same player he was a month and a half ago. Would you say? He’s not even the same player. You look at Wenyen (Gabriel) getting better. Looking at Shai, no one knew. Nick (Richards) has taken a little step back. It’s all based on toughness, staying engaged. Do you remember the pass in the zone that went right by him with three seconds to go in the zone? From that point on, he stayed in a stance and played like this, erect, standing straight up. They struggled to get it by him.

Sacha (Killeya-Jones) is getting better. But we need those guys to play with a sense of urgency, a desperation, a toughness.