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John Calipari and players update team’s progress, preview North Dakota

There’s a lot to work on for the Cats going into the third regular season game.

Aaron Gershon A Sea Of Blue

The first week of the college basketball season is in the books.

Week 1 wasn’t too kind to the Kentucky Wildcats, as they went 1-1 after a blowout loss to Duke on opening night, then had a hard-fought win over Southern Illinois on Friday. The lackluster performances dropped the Cats from No. 2 to No. 10 in the AP poll.

They will look to turn the tide beginning tomorrow when the North Dakota Fighting Hawks come to Lexington. The Fighting Hawks are just two years removed from playing in the NCAA tournament and are 2-0 to start the season.

“They space the court great” head coach John Calipari said of North Dakota. “They got a great, tough penetrator. They have a great shooter who can run and really shoot the ball. Their inside guys Avants (Conner Avants) is not bad, and the other kid they just got eligible that’s pretty good he’s got size. So, this is a lot like a Southern Illinois.”

When asked the game plan against North Dakota, Keldon Johnson had this to say:

“Just playing our style of basketball. I think as long as we play our basketball, we’ll be fine.”

As for how to fix Kentucky’s early season struggles, Coach Calipari suggested that he may have sped up the process too fast when getting his team ready for the season.

“We went too far. We tried to do too much and didn’t really get established in what we wanted to be.” Calipari said.

As for how to get Kentucky back on the right pace, Calipari he said there’d be a lot of teaching.

“There’s still a lot of teaching and stuff you’d think they’d know, but they don’t, and that’s okay. It’s normal.”

Two players who have struggled more than most have been PJ Washington and Tyler Herro.

Washington has been turnover-prone and gotten into foul trouble in Kentucky’s first two games.

Despite the poor play, Calipari has confidence in the sophomore.

“There’s a lot of stuff getting through his hands that’d I say shouldn’t, but he’ll be fine.” Calipari said of Washington.

Herro went 0/6 from the floor in Kentucky’s win over Southern Illinois. Calipari compared Herro’s early struggles to those of Kevin Knox last season, who later went on to be an NBA lottery pick.

“He’s still trying to feel his way out.” Calipari said of Herro. “We had to do this with Kevin Knox. We had to go through the process with him on, ‘here’s how you create shots. It’s not high school.’”

Sophomore Quade Green, who dropped 14 points in Kentucky’s win Friday night, offered this as advice for Herro and the other Kentucky freshman.

“Go out there and play hard really. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to have some mishaps on offense and defense. You’re going to get tired. You’ve gotta overcome it. That’s all.”

Here’s everything Calipari, Green, and Johnson had to say via UK Athletics.

John Calipari

On if there was a focal point for the team the last few days …

“Probably going back to some old school. Did it for a couple days before, one day before our last. We had two practices, I believe, maybe one. But I’m going back to – we went too far. Tried to do too much and we didn’t really get established in what we wanted to be. So, hopefully when you watch us you will see a little different team and you’ll say, ‘OK, I get it.’ That’s not their fault; that was me. Maybe I was trying to get ready for a game that I thought was important and move them too far. So now all the stuff that makes us who we are, we didn’t do any of it. So we’ve kind of gone back and just said, let’s just get this stuff down.”

On if he can elaborate a little on what the stuff is …

“Just in all areas whether it’s defensively, offensively, went beyond all the little things that are going to make you good. Anytime I think these kids know something then I’m more than likely making a mistake, and that’s just about every team I’ve coached here. If I think, well they know that, then I’ve made a mistake. Just taking it back a step. Little bit of old school. Some of my practices from past and still a lot of teaching and stuff you’d think they know, but they don’t, and that’s OK. That’s normal here.”

On if it’s the old school UMass teachings …

“Some of it, a little bit. Even some of it is not only that it would become even some of the stuff I’ve done here where I’ve went too fast. I’ve done this more than once. I mean, I’ve gone, moved it and I thought we were fine until you get smacked and then you realize, uh oh, we really don’t even know how to get open. ‘Well, they should.’ Well, they don’t. Stuff that we should know, but it’s not their fault. They’re going to do what I accept they’ll do. They’re usually not going to do a whole lot more then what I accept.”

On if that’s a trap that’s easy to fall into …

“It’s easy. The other side that happens when you’re coaching is you start winning and you put your head in the sand and you know you’ve got issues. But, you’re winning so you don’t want to screw it up. There’s issues. ‘Nah we’re winning.’ Then normally you get beat once, two, three times in a row and then it takes you time to recover from it. I’ve don’t that a few times in my career. More than once, believe me.”

On if he thinks Tyler Herro’s shooting slump is mechanical or confidence issue …

“No, just he’s still trying to feel his way out. We had to do this with Kevin Knox. We had to go through the process with him – here’s how you create shots. It’s not high school. Again, I’ll explain. When you’re in high school you catch the ball and then you try to figure out if you have a shot. As you move up that ladder in this game, you have to see shots before you catch the ball. So, you work to create a shot for yourself is before you catch the ball. Then some of it is, I’m going to go this hard and he’s going to leave his feet and it’s going to give me something. Not catch the ball, what do I have, a dribble for no reason and then shoot a contested shot. Those days are done. Can’t play that way. So, he’s going through that process and teams are not going to give him those easy shots. But I’m fine. He and I talked a little bit today. Some of it is I’m happy that he’s going through this because evaluating players when it’s all going good – I want to know when it doesn’t go good, what are you now? How do you play? What do you do now? You’re going to get in the game and you’re going to play bad some. Does that crush every other area of your game or do you keep playing? Do you keep taking open shots? So, this is an experience that they’re all going through. They’re all learning.”

On the challenge of playing late games …

“Yeah, when you’re old like me it’s a challenge to stay up that late.”

On knowing your shot before you catch the ball at the NBA level …

“They call them ball stoppers when you catch the ball, and no one wants to play with that. It is the guy who starts the play on that ball and then you either shoot it, drive it or pass it. So, I catch it, I see a drive, I catch it, I see a shot before or I’m seeing this. See, the really, really high-level skilled players that master their craft, not only do they see a shot or a drive before they catch it, they know where everyone is on the court, on their team. If I blew the whistle right now to more than one guy and said, ‘OK, look at me. Where’s our big man?’ They’d go, ‘I have no idea. Oh, he’s over there.’ That’s all part of growing as a player; it’s all part of the process. I say every year, you can’t skip steps. Growth is painful. I wish it was less painful but it isn’t. I wish they ran faster up those steps, but they’re going at the pace they go and now we’re playing – we’re talking about us – but we’re playing a good team again. I watched the tape. They space the court great. They’ve got a great, tough penetrator. They’ve got a great shooter. The kid (Billy Brown) can really shoot the ball. Their inside guys, (Conner) Avants is not bad. And the other kid, they just got a kid eligible that’s pretty good; he’s got size. So this is a lot like a Southern Illinois. Now, you say North Dakota – the name North Dakota – forget about the name; they’re a terrific basketball team. They just won on the road. Beat Milwaukee. They were up 17, 16 in the game. So it wasn’t a close game. I mean, they probably should have won by 12 and there were a couple things that happened down the end that made it a little bit close. But, you know, it’s a good game for us. And then they’re telling me about this next team we play (VMI) that plays a matchup zone and plays the Princeton offense. And again, you gotta teach, ‘OK, this thing is more dribble-drive spacing, slipping screens.’ Well, if I don’t show them, they don’t know. So it doesn’t matter who you play. It’s, are they a competitive team? Another team with juniors and seniors.

On if not knowing where other players are contributes to turnovers …

“Our bigs are contributing to the turnovers right now. Our bigs have a lot of turnovers right now. More than half of our turnovers are from our big guys.”

On big man turnovers vs. guard turnovers …

“No, normally you give the ball to the other team…I don’t mean to embarrass you, but…

On if there is a difference in why a big turns it over as opposed to a guard …

“Probably not as skilled as our guards. They’re probably leaving their feet to make passes. Instead of making the easiest pass you make the hardest pass. An evaluation of a (frontcourt) player is usually one-to-one assist-to-turnover. If you are, you can play basketball. If you’re a guard, you should be three assists to one turn(over). If you’re under water, it starts questioning, you know, basketball skill. We’ve got work to do. We do. Keldon (Johnson) right now when he drives, what is their entire team doing? They’re collapsing. You can throw three cheerleaders, an official and their whole team in the lane and right now what’s he do? He keeps going. There’s a lot of that. Some individual stuff, but they’re working hard and trying. Like I said, the staff has – we’re doing some old-school stay down in a stance, leg stuff that they need. The problem is you cannot get a practice in two hours, 2:15. You can’t do everything. So, now it becomes, OK, what are we trying to be good at? I’ve said this to you guys before, and ladies, you can’t be the greatest half court man-to-man team, full-court pressing team, unbelievable in the zone, and you trap, and your out of bounds, you’re unbelievable out-of-bounds plays, side out of bounds you’re even better than that, but man, your zone offense – you’re not going to be good at everything. And you have to decide, what is this team’s strength and how can we be good at those things and try to stay away from the things that we don’t do well? Well, it takes me normally a season – at least months to figure it out and figure it out with these guys. But, we’ve got a good group of kids. We’ve gotta have a couple of them stand up and step away from this pack. When we see that and have those guys, kind of like last year when Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) and Kevin Knox kind of stepped away and stepped up a little bit it made it easy on everybody. We don’t have that right now.”

On Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s play in the NBA …

“I’m happy. I’m ecstatic. We were talking to the guys with the (Los Angeles) Clip(per)s. But you know, we had two guys (Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns) had 20 and 20 last night. Julius (Randle), I’m so proud of him. Then we did a thing today where I was talking about DeMarcus (Cousins) for Showtime or something. I spent 30 minutes talking about him. I keep an eye on it, but I’m going to be honest with you, my focus right now is those guys in that gym over there. Trying to get them to click a little bit better, to be more in tune to each other and to really start playing how we have to play.”

On the difference between Quade Green vs. Duke and vs. SIU …

“I think he came in (to Duke) trying to – knew he was on TV and try to go crazy, to be honest with you. He just shot every ball. Like, he could have swung it and he looked at that dude and he shot it with a guy on him. But, let me say this: He wasn’t the only one. We had a bunch of guys who were like, you know. And their team just said, ‘You can’t guard me and I’m coming right at you.’ They were right. So we drifted a little bit. But, he’s played well. And I’ll tell you at practice he’s been unbelievable. He’s really, really has been good.”

On PJ Washington’s turnovers and what’s happening to cause them

“Yeah, he’s just losing balls that some of them he shouldn’t lose. Part of it is he’s playing just way too erect. Be an athlete. Play like you’re a guard. You’re athletic enough to do that, but you have to get down and do it. So, when you look at it there’s a lot of stuff getting through his hands that I would say shouldn’t. He’ll be fine.”

Quade Green

On playing late games …

“It’s just a regular game to us. We play at 9 o’clock tomorrow, too. Everybody is ready to lace their shoes up and hoop.”

On what the younger guys learned against Southern Illinois …

“I just know it was too close. Seven minutes, second half. The veterans had to step it up at that point, and we did.”

On how they changed the SIU game …

“We had to step the intensity up.”

On the team’s turnovers …

“We’ve got to cut the turnovers down and boost the assists. You’ve got to be comfortable with the basketball and put it in a good spot so everybody else can score it.”

On what he tells the team’s younger point guards …

“Keep calm, be collected, just go out there and play. Don’t worry about anything else, just go out there and play. Have a ball. Have fun with this.”

On Nick Richards …

“Nick just had confidence (against Southern Illinois). He just wanted every rebound. He wanted to prove something to coach, and that’s what he did.”

On what the team learned from the loss to Duke …

“It’s motivational. That’s all that is really. Losing like that, it’s a motivational thing.”

On the freshman class …

“They’ve been pretty good. I like the freshman group that we’ve got. I love them, actually. They come in to work every day, so you can’t take anything from them.”

On the focus in practice …

“Defense and loose balls, (taking) charges. I think that’s what today’s practice is going to be too. We love those practices, everybody can (get after) each other. He lets everything go. There’s no referee in our gym.”

Keldon Johnson

On the turnovers on offense …

“We looked at the turnovers. Of course, a lot of them were unforced. Just mental mistakes, things like that. We all know that we can’t have that many turnovers in a game, especially turnovers that weren’t needed. They were just easy mental lapses, so we’re just working on it.”

On staying locked in on defense with North Dakota having long offensive possessions …

“Just playing our style of basketball, getting after people. I think as long as we play our basketball, we’ll be fine. Regardless if it’s long possessions or not, just stay together, talk and I think we’ll be fine.”

On what the team learned from the first week of games …

“Definitely. I think each game was a learning lesson. I think we learned a lot from each game and it’s just up from here. We’re just going continue to get better as a team and as individuals and I think that it will be great.”

On what he learned individually …

“I know that I made some mental mistakes, some kick-outs that I should have made, but just learning, keep playing as a team and trusting our teammates.”

On whether shooting struggles are mental or mechanical …

“It’s a mechanics thing. Just gotta keep shooting. We work on shooting every day, just applying it to the game and keep trusting it. Don’t try to go back or revert back to old habits because they’re not falling right now. If we keep shooting like we know we can, they’ll eventually fall.”

On what Coach Cal means when he says they are making things harder than they need to be …

“Just trying to make the homerun play every time. I think that instead of making the simple play, making the play that’s the easiest, I think that sometimes we try to complicate, try to get the highlight play, if you want to say that, or make the spectacular play.”

On what fueled the run to win the game vs. SIU …

“Just our passion for basketball. We wanted to fight. We wanted to win. We just dug down. We knew we were down and we knew if we just gave up there they were going to beat us. We just came back and fought and that’s about it. We just kept fighting until the end.”

On North Dakota …

“I don’t really know much. I heard they’re a pretty good team. I think we’ll be fine as long as we come out and play our type of basketball.”