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Kentucky Basketball: John Calipari and Joel Justus preview Texas A&M Aggies

Includes updates on PJ Washington, UK becoming tougher and what to expect from the Aggies.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats are set to host the Texas A&M Aggies on Tuesday.

Both teams are in desperate need of a win following losses on Saturday. The Aggies suffered a brutal home loss to LSU, while a second-half meltdown led to a UK loss at Tennessee.

On Monday, head coach John Calipari hopped onto the SEC coaches teleconference to talk about his young team and preview Tuesday’s clash in Rupp Arena. Later, assistant coach Joel Justus met with the media to also preview the Aggies,

Here is a recap of what Calipari and Justus had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics.

John Calipari

Opening statement

”Texas A&M has had injuries and illness, so everyone in our league knows how good they are. Their guards were out for a while. Big man (Robert Williams) was out this last game with the flu. Robert is one of the best players in our league, voted, I believe, player of the year in the preseason. My guess is they’ll all be back, so it’ll be a different kind of game. (Texas A&M head coach) Billy (Kennedy) has done a great job. I mean, the whole league right now, when you look at our league, you’re talking eight, nine, 10 teams. Really, all 14 (teams). Teams that we thought would struggle are leading our league. Teams that you thought would be in the middle are up. Teams that have had issues as far as injuries and everything have taken a little step back, but they’ll be back. So, this is a six-, seven-loss league – you could lose six or seven (games) and win the league. That’s what it looks like to me.”

On LSU freshman point guard Tremont Waters

”If there’s a player that before the game you have to talk about, ‘OK, we’ve got to make sure we’re watching what he’s doing and we may have to do some things that we’ve done differently,’ that means he has an impact on a game. Tremont does that. At any point he can shoot a deep 3. They’ve given him leeway. I mean, he’s got room to play. But their big guy (Duop Reath) has also gotten better. I mean, now all of a sudden they can throw it in there, and the last game that they did against Texas A&M they were throwing him the ball in there. Their other players are playing off. They’ve got good kids and good players. They’re opening up the court. Another team that makes a lot of 3s.”

On bringing around more physical play from his team

”That’s how A&M plays anyway. They play a physical game. They play a lot of high-low. They’re going to try to jam it over the top, they’re going to try to seal you, similar to what happened after PJ (Washington) came out of the game (when) Tennessee just threw us around. The way you do it is, first of all, you show it on tape so they can accept it’s what happened. Then you just, it’s a process, day-to-day, and you just keep working on it. You get guys to accept I’ve got to change. I tried to tell them yesterday, ‘In most cases in this sport, for guys to advance in this sport you’ve got to fight. I’ve seen guys who have advanced with less skills and less this, less that, yet they fought and had 15-year careers. If you don’t fight, you’re not making it because it’s too competitive.’ Again, fighting doesn’t mean fist fighting. It means fight for position. It means being tough and knowing, I’m not fading away. I’m either getting fouled or making a basket here. It means I’m moving my feet to offensive rebound. I’m not pushing in the back. It means the shot goes up, I’m not afraid of contact, I’m going to create the contact. That’s the fight. I’m playing before my man catches the ball. I’m alert on the weak side because I’m tough and I’m not thinking about my missed shots, I’m not thinking about me, I’m thinking about what’s my job. That is all a mentality of toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness, and when you got a bunch of young guys it’s the last piece of this. It’s not skills. It becomes, will you battle?”

On PJ Washington’s health status

”No, it was cramps. Hopefully, we’ll watch today, but my point being, that’s as hard as he’s played since he’s been here and his body may have revolted. Like, what are you doing? The heck is going on here? Trying to get them to understand, that’s why you practice and you push yourself to the limits. You push your body, you make yourself uncomfortable, you beat workouts, they don’t beat you, you’re not looking for shortcuts. It’s all the stuff that we continue to talk about when you’re in the process. The problem is, we don’t have enough veterans that can go back to the lodge or in the hotel and talk about it because we’re all going through the same thing.”

On if he’s worried about his team getting that message

”No, it’s my job to just continue day-to-day, stay in the moment. I’m not worried about tomorrow, I’m worried about today’s practice and getting these guys in the right frame of mind. If we’re not ready for the physical battle, we move on to the next game. Let’s hope we’re ready for the next one. At some point, to survive you fight or you keep dying. Here’s the great thing: I can’t fight for you. There’s a loose ball, ‘I tried.’ ‘Well, he’s trying harder. You either get it or he gets it.’ What, is there going to be an alibi? ‘Well, he takes out this guy when he misses a shot. He doesn’t take out that guy.’ Well, you can hear all that or you can say, ‘It was me and him and he got the ball.’ Again, tape work is important for these guys. The first step to changing is looking at it and be self-evaluated and say, ‘I gotta change.’ As soon as that happens, you’re good. If they’re hearing the alibis and they’re believing it, or someone is trying to talk to them in any other sense other than change. Most of the stuff is mental and it’s how they’ve thought. It’s the thoughts they have and if I don’t feel like doing something I’m done. The other good one is, ‘I don’t feel good so we can lose.’ What? Well, no, you just don’t play. What do you mean we can lose? The thing that disappointed me with Tennessee was, it was a tie game. It was like 57-57. We had guys acting like the game was over. Like, wait a minute, fight to win the game. Fight to keep it close. They’re going to make shots. You’re going to have to fight. You’re going to have to come up with balls. That’s something that they’re learning. Like I said, I try not to go game-by-game. It’s overall. When PJ went down and Wenyen (Gabriel) had fouled out it was going to be hard from there on.”

Joel Justus

On what’s gone on after Coach John Calipari’s comments on toughness and the loss at Tennessee

“I think what it always starts with is some self-reflection, collectively as a team but also individually. I think Cal might have mentioned that last night or today. The guys that we were talking about – that we were concerned about toughness and that Cal was concerned about toughness – we watched the game with them individually, we watched it collectively and made them kind of answer the questions. ‘OK, what happened here?’ The other piece to that is you say, ‘OK, how do we move forward? How do we stop this from happening again?’ OK, we feel that or Coach feels that this is an issue on this play – what could you have done before the action and, now, what can you do moving forward to ensure that doesn’t happen again because Tuesday night, obviously, is going to be another game where toughness is going to come into play. For us as coaches or for them as players, to think that is not being shown in their locker room or their film session is somewhat reckless because that’s what I would imagine was said in the locker room Thompson-Boling Arena the other night when we’re ahead by eight points and a totally different team came out of the locker room and made it a street fight and not a basketball game.”

On PJ Washington’s play recently

“I think it’s the guy that you hope to see. Until these guys are in a position to actually feel what it’s like playing against an opponent that’s desperate – and that’s what Tennessee was the other night – it’s hard to say, it’s hard to replicate in practice, it’s hard to say in film sessions or mentoring sessions or chalk talks or whatever you can do. Until a guy sees another guy across from him that want’s it more than they do, you can’t really expect anyone to be in that situation and then do well.”

On what the biggest challenge is to getting the team to play consistent defense

“I think it’s a number of different things because they’re young. They’re going to make a mistake every single day and what we try to get them to understand is, ‘OK, did we get to this point?’ Are you fatigued? Have you been playing too many minutes? Are you not in position two passes before, which if you had jumped to the ball and been in better position, this would have never even happened. You would have never gotten screened. You would have never been in position to miss a blockout. And I think for us, we just have to continue to teach and teach and teach each game. Our guys want to learn. It’s not something that we’re doing the same thing over and over again. It’s something of a new issue each game.”

On playing zone on defense and if it’s a long-term solution

“I think it’s something that has been good for us, and I think that’s why we continue to go to it. Our guys are still learning that. So, when you play man-to-man, you’re learning actions, sets, plays from another team. And those teams are studying, ‘OK, how can we exploit Kentucky’s defense?’ The zone is the same way. There’s different responsibilities. There’s different tags. There’s different slides and there’s different types of communication. Different things have to be said and there’s different kind of reads and reactions. I think what we’re trying to do is that the next time somebody tries to run something similar to what whatever, Tennessee or LSU or Georgia, UCLA (ran), you’re ready for it. That’s what we have to do. We have to train them in practice. We have to train them through film sessions to be ready for those situations so that they’re ready for it.”

On both of the last two opponents opening the game by attacking the post

“I think it says more about those teams than it does about us. I think that that is something, you know, that we go into games with and have a strategy, maybe offensively that we’re going to try and do this to see how maybe that team responds or reacts. I don’t think that it’s necessarily what I think maybe you’re asking, ‘Was there somebody who is being called out or something like that?’ Or they’re trying to see certain things, are we going to trap in the post? Are we going to play one-on-one? Are we going to dig? Are we going to hedge on ball screens? Are we going to trap on ball screens? There’s a couple of different things that just by doing that in those couple of games – you know, different teams have ran ball screens in the first three to four offensive plays in games in the past just to see, ‘OK, how are you going to respond so that now we can react and respond ourselves?’ The same thing we do.”

On Hamidou Diallo and whether he was sick last game

“I think Hami is just in a place where he’s growing. It’s a process for him. That process is not much different for him as it is for anybody else in that you have to get better and this is new for him. It was the first time being in a true road game, you know, for him. He was sick and he was really sick in Baton Rouge and then was sick when we got back. He had not practiced, you know, until the game. That’s not an excuse. I think for him, he’s learning how people are defending him whether it be his man and now a secondary defender or a weak side defender. He’s learning. He is a guy, you know, we’ve said before, he’s one of those guys in this program who is hungry. They want to get better and they want to know how they can improve individually and then collectively as a unit.”

On which Texas A&M team to prepare for

“I think you have to prepare for all of them, which makes for, you know, an intense preparation on our staff’s part, on Cal’s part. But, we know what they’re going to be. They’re going to be a team that’s desperate and they can’t be more desperate than us, you know, when the game happens tomorrow. I think guys going through that the other night in Knoxville is exciting for our guys to get back out and play and exercise some of those demons that were brought out the other night. I think you’ll see a group of guys that’s excited to play. We love playing at home and our crowd, as we’ve said, we’ve got the best fans in the sport of basketball. I fully expect our guys to rise to the challenge hopefully that’s going to be presented to them tomorrow.”

On what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander struggled with on Saturday

“I think it was a game that he made some bad reads on a couple of different plays. I don’t necessarily think that they keyed in on him any different. I mean, Shai’s a tremendous player and is doing things that I think that we are all expecting him and have expected him to do. I think he just had a little bit of a, you can say a bad night, but he just had a couple of misreads. I don’t think it was anything that Tennessee did. I think it was all on Shai. He had to see a couple of different things and now he fixes it and we move forward.”

On his sense of how the guys felt following the loss

“I mean, you never can really tell until, you know, the next game or a month from now until something like that happens again. We got thrown out of a basketball game into a street fight and we took a step back. That’s the bottom line. I mean, anyone who was there or watched it and didn’t see that obviously was sleeping and not watching the game because that’s exactly what happened when the second half happened. They came out and basketball wasn’t played. It wasn’t dirty and I’m not saying (not). It was just a straight-up, ‘We’re going to out-tough you for the next 20 minutes.’ And they did.”