The icy cold conditions outside Rupp Arena didn’t cool down the Cats on the floor. The Kentucky Wildcats handled their business against North Dakota on Wednesday night and looked more like the team that we remember from the Bahamas.
Some back and forth action early made way for an offensive explosion from the Cats with about 13 minutes left in the first half. After a three-point bucket by the Fighting Hawks shrunk the Cats lead to 17-16, the Cats went on a tear.
Kentucky ripped off 15 consecutive points to build their lead and never looked back. Keldon Johnson extended the lead to 19 when he nearly brought the rim with a one-handed slam on a fastbreak that started with a Quade Green steal. Johnson finished with a double-double, 12 points and 10 rebounds.
The Wildcats led by 21 at halftime with the score 46-25 and the second half offered more of the same for Calipari’s young Cats.
The Fighting Eagles and Wildcats traded baskets for the first four minutes of the second half. Then, Kentucky went on another big run and maintained a 30-plus point cushion for the remainder of the game. There was no stopping Big Blue on Wednesday night.
Tyler Herro finally got on track, scoring 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting. PJ Washington, however, was the Cats leading scorer with 25 points. PJ was 4-of-5 from the behind the arc and also secured 7 boards.
If Kentucky plays like this for the remainder of the season, they’ll be hard to stop. Let’s check in to see what Coach Cal and the players had to say after the win:
Q. What did you think of the defensive intensity and activity tonight?
JOHN CALIPARI: Better. We still had some breakdowns. There were a couple plays in the post where we just got scored on and I’m like, “Come on now.” I mean -- but I liked the fact that we turned somebody over finally, that I’ve gone back to old school, here’s how we’re doing this, and I’m holding them accountable. I told them, “You don’t do what I’m asking you to do, I’m making it very clear, you’re choosing not to, you’re going to hear it and then deal with it. And if you’re afraid to play because I get on you, then don’t play.” I mean, the best thing that happened to us is – me personally, not these kids – figuring out that I had moved way too fast and beyond what they really knew or knew how to play. I thought well, they know this stuff, and any time I think that it’s, I make a mistake.
North Dakota. I watched enough tape to watch -- Brian has these guys cutting and back cutting and making threes and doing stuff. And you know what, it’s a hard game to play. And we turned them over, we got some deflections, we did some good stuff and the biggest thing is we rebounded.
Now, EJ Montgomery’s going to have to play more, just how it is. So someone’s going to have to play less. That’s how it is. I got to get him in the game and I got to let him go and he’s going to make some mistakes and he’s going to get pushed sometimes, but you got to have separators in the game at some point that can make a play out of nothing. He does that. Blocks a shot, he just -- first half he didn’t dive on the floor. Guess what? I absolutely ripped him. Second half, he dove twice for balls. So it’s, again, if I accept what they want to give, that is unacceptable. I thought that he’s another one that this stuff’s new. I thought Ashton (Hagans) defended in the second half, really how we have to guard.
Q. During the summer you commented about you liked Tyler Herro’s swagger, but let’s see the swagger after he gets punched in the mouth once he gets here. Had some adversity. How do you think he’s handling that, and how do you think he did with finding his shot tonight?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, he’s still not where he needs to be. Like, he’s kind of doing a little bit of Jamal Murray, where I’m making him catch and shoot balls, like coming off of baselines. You can’t be slow. You can’t step. You’ve got to catch it and it’s got to get off. As you’re catching the ball, you’re already turning to shoot. He doesn’t do that naturally. He’s never had to do it. He’s always been able to jump over somebody. Well, you’re done with that now. I thought he got going and really played pretty well. And then he tried to throw two-scoop look away (pass), like what in the world? And again, you know, this game, when you get it going good, don’t say anything, just keep playing and ride it. Because you say something or do something or try to change what’s going good, it goes away real fast and then you’re back to where you were, 0-6 and can’t make a play and so. But he did better. He’s defending better. I thought Keldon (Johnson) was outstanding. Double-double, played hard. We just have so much work to do and guys, ladies, I forget how hard this is, because all I remember is the end of last year. I don’t remember all the way through. I don’t remember the four losses in a row. I don’t remember how bad we were playing for awhile. I remember in the league tournament and I remember the NCAA Tournament. And then I get back in the middle of this and I’m like, “Oh, this is going to be really hard.” And every year it’s the same. And that’s why you look at me and say, “Boy, he does age. Year to year he gets old.” Well, this will get you old real fast.
Q. Are you counting on PJ Washington to stretch the floor the way he did tonight always? Is that how you want him to play?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, but he can shoot it. He’s been working. If you watch, he went from knees to shoot it to chest and shoot it. So now he doesn’t have all that extra motion that leads to missed shots and air balls and bank misses. Even, if you watched, I got on him about his free throw. He went to his knees again and then up and stopped it, and I said, “No, you get that thing right here, that’s your shot now.” And the other thing is, like I told him, I said if he chooses to come out and play with that kind of intensity, he’s a difference maker. He’s a separator. But the other guys standing straight up and down, balls going between your legs, can’t get a rebound, fumbling the ball, that guy ain’t a separator. And he is one of those guys. I still say he’s one of the best players. Now he’s got to go prove it. And I hate it when someone says, “Well, more motor, he needs more motor.” That’s basically saying you’re not playing hard enough. I don’t want to hear that about any of my players. When he competes and goes after it, he’s physically tough, he’s mentally tough, he’s skilled, he’s just got to do it. That’s who he’s got to be every moment he’s on the court.
Q. I kind of chuckle when I see you grimacing up there, but how much do you enjoy the teaching aspect of basketball?
JOHN CALIPARI: I love it. And let me say this, I love practices and if we didn’t have these damn games, it would be a beautiful profession.
But then you got to walk in and say, you have no idea whether you’re going to win or lose, whether you’re playing North Dakota, Southern Illinois, how about Transylvania played us good. Now, you think about it -- IUP, think about it. And I’m standing there saying, wait a minute, I knew something was wrong, and I told all you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then you go get smashed by a hundred. Now, there’s some other teams that got smashed by a hundred today, too, at home. I mean, there’s some stuff, I mean, I’m not the only guy that kind of had my head in the sand, but I’ve reverted, we did loose ball -- charge loose ball drills in two days, seven times. Like smashing each other, diving on the floor, learning how to go get a loose ball, rolling to your back seven times in two days. And we’ll do it every day. Charge, loose ball. We did wall sits. You ever do wall sits? You ever do a wall sit? Where you sit back against the ball wall and have you to have your legs bent with a 25-pound plate. Maybe a 50-pound plate. On your legs for three straight minutes. And if anybody came out of it, stop that clock, get back down, quit adjusting. Oh, no, we did wall sits, we did lane slides, we did bounce for 30 straight seconds and move and bounce, I mean, I literally reverted back -- how about block outs? That’s why I was disappointed in Nick (Richards) tonight. He didn’t block out. We spent two days, shot goes up, go find somebody. Shot went up today he looked and the kid pushed him under and he couldn’t get a ball. Got one or two rebounds. He had 19 last game. You kidding me? So I’m staying the course, make us a defensive-oriented team. I think we should be a pretty good post up team. We only took 13 threes, I wish we would have taken a few more. But Immanuel (Quickley) I thought played well again. He’s doing good stuff. Four assists, no turns.
Q. How close is Jemarl Baker to getting some playing time?
JOHN CALIPARI: He hasn’t practiced since the Blue/White. So he hadn’t been on the practice floor at all. I think he shot around yesterday or the day before but he has not practiced at all since Blue/White.
Q. Is it frustrating that kids that are good enough to play at Kentucky have to be coached on how to dive and when to dive for loose balls?
JOHN CALIPARI: No. No. It’s just, you, you’re like me. If you think they know, you just made a mistake. I’m just telling you. Like if any time that I say, “Well he’ll know that.” Oh, no. They don’t. Del Harris was in our gym two days ago or was it yesterday? Might have been yesterday. But he was like watching the wall sits and the lane and the diving for loose balls and he’s looking and saying, “Oh my gosh, like this is where –” I said, “Yup, we have gone way back.” That’s what you do the first week of practice. And I thought we were beyond that. Well guess what, we weren’t. Now we’ll get back to it. Those practices have become physical now. So now there’s body-to-body contact and we had two guys absolutely let go of the rope. One absolutely let go, almost had to leave the gym, just because we practiced that way. You can probably guess who that was by how he played today. That’s the mental, the toughness, the stuff that -- and then I’m holding them accountable. I said I am going to be all over you if you’re not doing -- I’m not settling for it. So there goes sitting there with the rolled up program. That’s out the window.
Q. You said yesterday that the most of your turnovers were coming from the bigs. Is that a growing type of thing because I think some today was like 7 of 13 come from the bigs?
JOHN CALIPARI: Still, right? Yeah, I mean most of it is they’re not used to coming to stops, they’re not used to driving a lane and they think they’re going to drive and no one’s coming at them. It’s just stuff that we got to do every day. So if we want to put them in positions to score, then we got to teach them what do you do when this happens. Do you understand that you’re not -- like today PJ (Washington) had three, I think he had three at halftime. So he didn’t have any in the second half. But it’s, you got to do drills that gets them more comfortable.
On overall play tonight …
“We all did really well. It was a good game for PJ, great game for Tyler. We bring it all together to win.”
On if there was increased intensity in the game tonight …
“Definitely. I think we took defense personally tonight and I think that’s how it should be every night. I think we just had a good time tonight and it shows that when we play defense, we get easy offense.”
On Coach Calipari being more intense tonight …
“I would say so. That’s his collar. He always wants what’s best for us.”
On how much of Coach Calipari’s coaching is teaching rather than yelling …
“It’s always teaching. He’s always getting his point across and always trying to make you better as a player. So even though people look at it as yelling, he’s definitely teaching or getting his point across to us.”
On what area of your game does he get on you most about …
“Driving and kicking. Making the right read. It doesn’t always have to be a shot when I get in the lane.”
On Coach Calipari’s different demeanor in practice since Duke game …
“He’s a lot more intense. He was intense before, but he jumped it up a notch because we know what happened in that Duke game.”
On the team’s preparation …
“Yeah, we’ve been practicing all week, just on rotations and stuff like that. I think tonight we came out with a lot more energy. We rotated a lot better tonight and I think it showed with our deflection and steals.”
On one of the focuses in practice …
“In practice, all of the coaches have been on us about rotating and being more active and not being late to the rotation, so just working hard and just coming out with more energy and being active with our hands.”
On focusing on basic skills in practice …
“I think we deserved it after the Duke game and how we played. They’re (the coaching staff) just being hard on us and want us to be better. They know how good we can be.”
On the difference in tonight’s game versus the first two …
“I feel like the first two games I got into foul trouble really quick. I just tried to be solid and to get rebounds and just try to create for everybody. Just try to knock down some shots. I feel like once I saw a couple go in, it kind of just opened up for me.”
On team’s defensive intensity …
“That’s the biggest thing we have been working on is just team defense. We do a drill that’s called the ‘Perfect Stop’ and it’s 30 seconds you have to play to beat the whole time and can’t let them score and get in the paint. I think we did a good job of applying that drill to the court today.”
On going back to the basics in practice…
“That was the main focus for us. We worked on setting screens, rebounding and that was pretty much it. Those two were the main focuses and our defense as well.”