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Calipari & players update team’s progress, preview Transylvania

The Wildcats had their first game-week presser on Thursday leading up to their exhibition game with the cross-town Transylvania Pioneers.

Aaron Gershon A Sea Of Blue

The No. 2 ranked Kentucky Wildcats are one day away from their exhibition opener against Lexington’s own Transylvania University Pioneers.

Though the game isn’t official, it will indeed be the team’s first action against an opponent in Rupp Arena. Along with an opportunity for fans to watch the talented team, the game will also serve as a chance for head coach John Calipari to start forming a rotation & find a starting lineup.

Calipari noted during Thursday’s presser that many players are still in the mix to be starters.

“There’s probably nine guys who can start,” Calipari said. “I’m looking for some separation and when the game starts, some guys will get it,” he said.

When asked if any players had started to get that “separation,” he said two stood out with one more on the rise.

“I would probably say PJ [Washington] and Reid [Travis] probably a little bit, but Nick [Richards] has been so good,” Calipari said.

Calipari went on to talk highly of Richards.

”Who has anyone like a Nick? There are none. He’s it,” Calipari said. As for what Richards still needs to improve on, Calipari’s remarks were simple. “Just trying to get him to catch it in the lane,” Calipari said.

One key position battle is at the point guard spot. Calipari confirmed it is a two-man race between a pair of freshman, Ashton Hagans & Immanuel Quickley. Quade Green will play off the ball, likely at shooting guard, according to Calipari.

“They’re both going to play,” Calipari said of the freshman duo. “They’re both a little bit different, they’re both really effective and they’re both getting really better,” he said.

Hagans had strong comments on the competition.

“Start or not, we’ll both give it our all, leave everything on the court and try to get a win,” Hagans said.

Hagans also went on to say he did not mind coming off the bench.

“To me, it’s not important at all to start. If you do what he [Calipari] needs you to do, he’ll put you in regardless,” he said.

As for the star of the Blue-White game, Tyler Herro, Calipari said not to expect a 30-point game every night.

”I hope he has some 30 point games,” Calipari said. “I hope we turn around and he has a couple of those, but he’s not going to average 30. He’s on a team of other really good players, too,” he said.

When both the Pioneers & Wildcats take Rupp Arena’s hardwood on Friday, it’ll be the first time the two Lexington schools have met since 2013.

After a heavy amount of scrimmaging, Quickley is ready to play a real opponent.

“I haven’t heard too much about them [Transylvania], but you respect every opponent, whoever you play,” Quickley said. “Whoever we play, we’re going at their necks 110 percent,” he said.

The preseason matchup is set for 7 P.M. EDT and will be aired live on SEC Network.

Here is a recap of everything Calipari and his Cats said Thursday, courtesy of UK Athletics:

John Calipari

On how much battling there is right now for starting spots …

“When you look at this, we probably have nine guys that could start. What I’m looking for is some separation and when the game starts. Some guys have got to. We’re scrimmaging more now for that reason. I’m stopping them still too much right now. You got to have separation. You got to have two, three or four guys that are playing a little bit more than the other guys, but it’ll be good to see. It’ll be good to see. They’re competing. We had a player that’s competing against another guy. He got up early to go to the gym and he went and knocked on the kid’s door and said, ‘Come with me. Why don’t you come on over?’ That’s where we’re trying to go with all this. And you guys all know, it’s like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Did I start him early? How many games did he not start to start the year and by the end of the year, one of our, if not the most, effective players we had. So really early on I’m just going to be checking. I may start a group in the first half and a different group in the second half. I may do that for a while until we figure out who’s who.”

On using Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s work ethic as an example to the new team and how it helps younger players …

“If you’re playing and you’re at Kentucky, I don’t think – really other than the ego of saying I start the game, especially if I start a different group in the second half, but the story of Shai is good on a lot of fronts. Really is.”

On balancing lineups and finding lineups that work in practice …

We’re spending about an hour on warmups and the defensive stuff that we have to continue on and then an hour in scrimmaging. During that hour, I’m rotating like in a game. ‘You three in.’ OK, let’s play with that team. ‘OK, you two go in.’ Let’s play with that team a little bit. ‘You four go in.’ Let’s play with that team a little bit. The other thing you find out is what’s effective for them. Where are they offensively? Where are they defensively? How do they rebound the ball? What I’m saying is, we’re keeping stats and efficiency matters here. If you’re dribbling too much, I call it a turnover. If you have a one-handed catch, I’ll call it a turnover. If you hold the ball – back in high school – turnover. Because I’m trying to get them still to play the way we’re trying to get them to play, and it takes time.”

On if anyone has started the separation process in terms of breaking away, rising above …

“I would probably say PJ (Washington) and Reid (Travis), but Nick (Richards) has been so good. Who has anybody like a Nick? There are none. He’s it. Just trying to get him to catch it in the lane. Then, if I tell you that, probably there’s got to be a point in the game – a certain number of minutes – that those three have to play together. ‘Figure it out, Coach.’ Then I have to figure out how I do that. We’re just working through. I’ve really enjoyed this because they just – ‘Tell us how you want us to play.’ They come every day and they’re trying. They’re showing us stuff every day that they can do. They’re learning and growing. Anybody that’s watched me coach – yeah, they make me who I am. If you want me to be hard and nasty, I’ll go to whatever point I have to go to get you to do what you have to do for yourself and our team. This team, it’s kind of like you tell them once and they get it.”

On how important shot blocking will be …

“Nick, EJ (Montgomery) and (Washington). I mean we have Keldon (Johnson). We have a lot of guys that can block shots, but it’s not blocking your man’s shot. It’s blocking someone else’s shot and not leaving your feet. (Richards) is still doing that a bit. You have to stay down, make them take tough twos. You can’t leave your feet and give them straight-line shots because they’re either getting a layup or a wide-open three, and we’re working on it every day. Even in the Blue-White Game, you saw us leave our feet four, five or six times. We’re working on it every day. You know, there are other things that we have to get – who’s our best zone team on both defense and offense. Who’s our best zone offensive team? Somebody plays zone, who’s the team that should be on the floor for a number of minutes? And then the same defensively. Who’s our best zone defensive team? Let’s figure that out.”

On if Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley are his two primary options at point guard …

“Yeah. They’re both going to play. They’re both a little bit different, but both really effective. And both are really getting better.”

On how much he wants to play Hagans and Quickley together …

“I did yesterday a little bit, and it’s OK. That was the first time in a while they played together. You gotta do this – what we’re doing scrimmaging every day and we’re going with Transy, we’re going with IUP – and then around those games we’re scrimmaging just so we can get some sort of rotation and feel. How are they playing when there are people in there? I’ll give you an example: When there are people in the stands and it’s on television and they got the numbers on their back, it’s like how do they play now? You had EJ and Reid probably play as well as they played this year in that game. But I liked it because there were people in the seats and it was national television. How you gonna play now? And those two have stepped up. But Nick played well. PJ played well in the second half. PJ’s first half was a struggle. Who’d he go against? He went against Reid and he got chested about 10 times on his drive. I mean, then you see him like yesterday when I put the three bigs in together. All the sudden he has his way and it’s easy. OK, now you’re going against Reid again, now it’s hard again. You’re going against a grown man it’s a little different.

On what Johnson needs to work on …

“Just consistency. I want his spirit, but you can’t be up and down in this. It’s hard to be that guy, significant guy, if you’re too up and down. He’s just learning. But boy he’s got some stuff. He’s shooting the ball better. He’s a little excited. This is all new to him. He’s 18 years old. Young kid.”

On if people should not get over excited when Tyler Herro scores 30 plus points a game …

“I hope he has some 30-point games. Like, I hope we turn around and he has a couple of those. But he’s not going to average 30. He’s on a team of other really good players too. What did Devin Booker average? You guys really don’t follow us very closely. I’m OK; I just want you to admit that you don’t. He barely averaged double figures – if he did – and he’s a lottery pick and he scored 70 in a pro game and he had 23 last night in three quarters. Does it really matter (how much you average here)? And if it does, it’s ego stuff and those guys don’t come here.”

On honoring the late C.M. Newton before the game …

“He had always been kind to me personally, but that’s not why he’s being honored. He’s being honored because of what he did for this athletic department and especially this basketball program. There are two guys that took over in this athletic department that had to walk into tough situations and try to get them right. One was C.M. Newton. To walk in when it was like, ‘What are we going to do and how am I going to climb out of this hole?’ The second one was coach Joe B. Hall. Who the heck would want to follow Coach (Adolph) Rupp? Those two guys walked into some situations where it’s hard to even come away with a W, and they both did. But, C.M. and his family and what he’s meant – he was a player, he obviously coached in the SEC, was part of the SEC, and then came here and left his mark. So this game, which was planned because of this so we could do this and talk to Martin, who obviously was part of my first staff here. He and his family are coming up from Samford. I’m just happy they are going to do some video board stuff for them. He’s just done so much for the game of basketball, so much for this university, so much for this athletic department, so much for the basketball program that I think it’s only right that we honor him.”

On the matchup vs. Transylvania …

“Brian (Lane) and I are good friends. Brian Lane and just want he’s done – he had to follow in some footsteps. His father, Don Lane, who was at the (coaches’) clinic this weekend, and I pulled him up because I wanted to see the coaches and the people who watched the stream, which was almost 1,000 people. I wanted them to see him. What Transy means to this city and where we can help each other, that’s what we’re doing. Then to honor C.M. on top of it is pretty good.”

#5, Immanuel Quickley, Fr., G

On what John Calipari has been talking about since the Blue-White Game …

“Starting with us, we’re just really excited to play against somebody else. We’ve been going at each other in practice every single day, so going against somebody else is going to be really exciting. Cal’s really excited about this team. He feels we’re going to be good this year.”

On the team’s focus …

“The focus has been getting better every day. I think individually first and then as a team collectively, we’re just trying to take strides to get better each and every day as a team.”

On if there is a specific area they are looking to improve …

“We’re really focusing a lot on defense right now. A lot of early season stuff and preseason stuff was on offense. Now we’re trying to get the defense and stuff like that together. I think we really play well on offense together and we’re just trying to take that offensive side to the defensive side.”

On what they have been working on …

“Like I said, defensively we’re trying to get a lot of advance stuff. Things they do in the NBA now, we’re trying to get that on the college level. It’ll be hard for teams to score on us if we can get that defensive side down. That’s what we’re really focusing on this year.”

On whether they have been pressing at all …

“I don’t know. Maybe we might get to it. If we did, we would definitely have the athletes. This team’s really athletic, has a lot of length. If we press, we would be a pretty good pressing team.”

On their progress toward accepting the importance of defense …

“I think we got a lot of defensive-minded people. Myself, Ashton (Hagans), Keldon (Johnson) and really everybody, we’re just trying to get stops, trying to lock our man up and trying to help our teammates as well. When we’re on defense, it’s one against five and we don’t want anybody to score. That’s kind of our outlook on that.”

On Cal trying to get him to get rid of the ball more quickly …

“Throwing the ball ahead. Instead of taking five dribbles to get up the court, it’ll take one and throw it ahead and get it to somebody else and start the offense a little faster. Really it’s all about pace. Cal’s really great with his point guards, so whatever he’s telling me to do I think it’s for the better of me. I don’t really get frustrated or anything. I think that’s what that is.”

On how many high school habits he has had to break …

“It’s a lot of things you gotta break on the college level and it’s a lot of things you gotta learn. I always come in with an open mind every single day, just trying to learn new stuff, and I think I’m doing pretty well with that.”

On facing Transy …

“I haven’t heard too much about them, but you respect every opponent, whoever you play. Whoever we play, we’re going at their necks 110 percent.”

#2, Ashton Hagans, Fr., G

On if it will feel good to play another team …

“Of course. In practice, we’ve been going at it, so we’re all just ready to go put it on the floor.”

On what he learned during the Blue-White Game …

“It just opened my eyes that everyone has something we can put on the table, whether it’s on the defensive side or the offense side of the ball. We have veterans that came back (from) last year. At practice, we’ve just tried to do the same thing that we did at the scrimmage: go at each other, show everybody that we love to complete and just leave it all on the floor.”

On competing for playing time …

“We all try not to look at the playing time. We just try to go out there, the teams Cal put together at practice, we just go out there and try to compete. We’re all going to try to fight for the starting spot when that time comes. But for right now, we’re just out there competing.”

On being more aggressive with his shot …

“It’s all about gaining confidence. I’m just trying to get consistent on the jumper, mid-range and three-ball. That’s really it, I’m just trying to get better at it each and every day.”

On Nick Richards’ blocks on him at the Blue-White Game …

“The first one, it was a clean block. The second one, there was a little push in the back. But he blocked that one, too.”

On Nick Richards …

“He’s getting more confident. (We’re) trying to build him up. Last year, Cal said he used to always look at his feet after every play. But now, he’s got confidence in himself and now he’s playing his game like a grown man, and that’s what we need.”

On if he has played with Immanuel Quickley in practice …

“We really haven’t played with each other at practice, but yesterday he switched up the groups and we played a little bit with each other. We both love playing defense and we can get ours on the offensive end. He just wants us to be aggressive, try to create turnovers and get easy buckets on the defensive end and talk on defense, get better on defense.”

On how to get motivated against a lesser opponent …

“Go out there with the same mindset of play my game, even if it’s not a good team. Go out there and play, leave everything on the court and just play with my teammates.”

On having Rob Harris as the team’s strength coach …

“I love it. He’s an uplifting guy. He’s bringing energy when we’re in there lifting weights. He’s got the music going, pushing us each and every day. When I first got here, I wasn’t as built as I am now. We’re just working each and every day to get better.”

On some of the high school habits he’s had to break …

“I would say some of the ‘attitude points’ that Cal added to the practice when we started talking. In high school, I used to talk all the time. I would say that and talking on defense. I wasn’t really talking at all when I was playing in high school. Now, it’s like you have to talk or you’re not going to be on the court.”

On how tough it is to communicate on the court …

“He just wants us to build up talking on defense so if somebody is out of place, we can get them back into the place. He just wants us to go out there, talk to each other.

On what the team has been working on since the Blue-White Game …

“I would say talking on defense. Making sure you’re not just stuck on your man. Helping everybody on defense, making sure everyone is in the right spots.”

On how Quickley makes him better each day …

“He makes me better each and every day. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team. Seeing him in the gym daily made me want to go in there and work hard because that’s who I’m going against for the spot. Off the court, we’re real close. Also, we watch a little film together sometimes. We just try to make each other better.”

On if starting is important or not …

“To me, it’s not important at all to start because if you’re doing what he needs you to do, he’s going to put you in regardless. We’ve got a good team. Regardless of the points or the stats, really, none of that matters. Just leave everything and play your role, and you’re going to be good.”