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John Calipari and Kentucky Wildcats preview Duke

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It will be No. 2 vs. No. 4 for Kentucky’s season opener against Duke.

Aaron Gershon A Sea of Blue

Opening night is two short days away for Kentucky Basketball.

It’s hard to think of an opening night game bigger than the one that will take place Tuesday with the No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats taking on the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils in Indianapolis as part of the Champions Classic.

The Cats played in this event last season. In that game, the Cats came in ranked No. 7 and Kansas at No. 4. Kansas won a tight one. It was only Kentucky’s third game of the regular season.

However, this time Kentucky comes in not only as the higher-ranked team but the team with more experience.

PJ Washington, who is now a sophomore, feels much more comfortable going into the Champions Classic this year compared to last.

“I feel a lot more comfortable now.” Washington said. “I know what to expect from last year. It was just kind of exciting for me I just didn’t know what things were going to be like, what the crowd was going to be like, so I kind of know what to expect this year, and I’m just excited to be in this situation.”

Despite having a handful of veterans on this year’s squad, Kentucky still has a handful of freshman who’s first career game will come in a top-five matchup.

Grad Transfer Reid Travis said this when asked what they need to do to succeed:

“As far as not blowing it up to something that it’s not. It’s a big game. There’s a lot of excitement around it, a lot of hype, but at the end of the day, just trust your work, trust the work we’ve put in as a team and just knowing that we have a long way to go.”

As for the opponent, the Blue Devils come in with the nation’s top three freshmen in RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Zion Williamson.

The go-to player is Barrett, who was ranked the nation’s top prospect for 2018.

Washington, who had played with him in the past, broke him down.

“He’s a great player. Obviously everyone knows that. He’s a strong driver. He can shoot the ball really well, so you got to go in and keep your mindset straight.”

John Calipari, as usual, likes his team.

“I like my team, I’m good. We may be playing a team that’s better than us, but over the long haul, the way this team practices, the way they get along, the grind of this that each individual player has gotten better, I’m good. I want this team.”

When asked if he had a starting lineup set for Tuesday Cal had a simple answer.

”I haven’t”

As for what a win would mean Calipari had this to say:

“If you win it’s huge. If you lose, you just put in the rearview mirror and learn from it and go onto the next game.”

The Wildcats will look to improve to 13-9 all-time against the Blue Devils when the two meet on Tuesday night to open the highly anticipated 2018-19 season.

Here is a recap of everything Calipari and the Cats had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:

John Calipari

On what he was most focused on when they got back in the gym after Friday’s exhibition …

“I thought we had a couple guys who deserved to play well (and) should expect to play well still tentative, still looking at the bench. Stuff like that. I talked to them about (it). A couple of guys – like I watched EJ (Montgomery) and I’m like, why didn’t he play more? Like, he played good. When I watched it I’m like, why didn’t he play more? We still have – like I said, there are still a couple of guys that should be playing better that are not, so we’re trying to figure it out. Now you go into this – I think they’re all excited about playing it. (Duke has) unbelievable talent, unbelievable team. We already know what kind of coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) is. So where are we right now? I have no idea, to be honest with you. I have no idea. This will be one where hopefully a couple guys stand out. We’ve had it before in these events where certain guys just went – and you got to see them. We’re not – we’re still going at our pace. I didn’t change anything to try to speed stuff up because we’re playing this game. This is the pace we go and if it’s not it or they do something we’re not used to – if they start switching everything or they do some crazy zone that we’re not ready for – than we’re not ready.”

On if there’s something he can pull from one of the Bahamas games against professional teams to prepare for this game …

“All (four) of those teams did not pack it in. Transy and IUP came out with one thing: Get in the lane and make them shoot 3s. And they just packed it in. They were also teams that would run their stuff and at points run the clock. Well, none of those teams [the teams in the Bahamas] are going to run the clock. They were going to play fast, so it gave us a chance to open up and play a looser game. But here’s my thing: We were better defensively down there than we were these two games (vs. Transylvania and IUP(, I thought. So part of it is, maybe we’re stretching the court too much. Part of it is people are beating us on the dribble that maybe weren’t capable of beating us on the dribble down there [in the Bahamas]. I don’t know. But this will one coming up where you’ll find out, can you guard people on the bounce, because that’s what we’ll do. They’ve probably got three or four guys that catch it and they’re driving it.”

On having experience of playing Duke’s R.J. Barret last summer with Immanuel Quickly and PJ Washington in the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup championship in Egypt …

“Well, if he played like he did against us there, no, it doesn’t help. I mean, he was really good. He made jumpers, and ones and second shots. He was good. He was good. And they deserved to beat us. Roy (Rana) as coach did a heck of a job. But he played. And I imagine he’s going to be that excited as he was to play the USA and win that game. He’ll be that excited to play us. It’s going to be a challenge. This early – I don’t know if any of us four coaches are looking at this shaking our heads like, why are we doing this to ourselves this early? But again, I would say all four it’s’ a process. You play bad and win or you play well and lose, this is learning. And you really get a chance to say, OK, what are our strengths? What are some weaknesses? Is there anything glaring that we’re going to have to address? And I’ll tell you, it’s not bad that you address it right away.”

On if he’s decided on a starting lineup yet …

“I haven’t. I haven’t.”

On what he thought of the starting five of Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, PJ Washington and Travis Reid against IUP …

“I thought PJ and Reid deserved to play together some. I wanted to get Ashton a chance to start (and) see how the game would start with him at point. Gave the other two guys a chance to start. I didn’t start Tyler and Keldon (vs. Transylvania). So we just went that way. I did more of a rotational sub than three or four guys at one time unless that’s just what happened because I wanted to see how they would do. The guys (assistant coaches) told me that EJ had some foul trouble, which is probably why he didn’t play more, but he was good. This game here is a good game for him because of his length.”

On what advantage his veterans have of having played in a big game like this before …

“I don’t know if it’s an edge, but their experience should make them less anxious than anyone in the building. They’ve been through it. I mean, I would guess all four teams are questioning like, how good are we? How are guys going to respond in this environment? I mean, all four teams. We have a couple of guys that should not be anxious, but, you know, this has become – maybe because of where they’ve placed it – this has become a humongous event. And to play it to start this year when you’ve barely got out-of-bounds plays and all of a sudden you’re running up and down on national television.”

On if he remembers where he was during the Christian Laettner shot that defeated Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA Tournament

“We were the team that got beat because of a stepping-out-of-the-box call the game before so I don’t remember if I was – I may have been mad enough that I wasn’t rooting for Kentucky. [Laughter.] I can’t remember. But we – it was a two-point game [the game before when he was at UMass] and that could have been us, throwing it against us when I was at UMass. It’s two terrific storied programs that, whoever is coaching here – maybe less so, but I would say they’ve had great coaches there other than just Coach K – either program (that) when I leave or he leaves, I think you’re going to say they’re two of the top five in any given year and usually they’re one, two or three. They’re those kind of programs. So when you get together and play each other, my thing is, I don’t want to make this bigger than it is for those guys or for me. I don’t want to coach that way early. I’ll say that and will probably get more excited than I should, but you don’t your best, whether you’re coaching or you’re playing, if you get too much going. You’ve got to be excited about the game and ready to go and have great energy, yet calm in the inside in what you’re doing.”

On the significance of a game against Duke to start the season …

“If you win it’s huge. If you lose you just put it in the rearview mirror, learn from it and go on to the next game. But it’ll hold for any of the teams that win this thing. The two teams that win, it’ll hold through whatever. It’ll give you a cushion as you go forward, but it’s just, it’s early. Do you remember UCLA beat us (in 2016-17)? And then we go in the NCAA Tournament and we beat them pretty good. I mean, would you rather have won this one or the last one? I’d rather have won the last one. It’s just every year it is, look, we don’t want to be playing in November like it’s January or February. We don’t want to be that team. We want to just continue the gradual climb in what we’re doing.”

On Coach K’s longevity at Duke and how he’s able to do it …

“Well, you’d have to ask him because I don’t know. When Coach (Adolph) Rupp was here, and it was I think 42 years, the first 15, 20 were really early. Just getting it going, but that was back then. Coaches stayed at places 20, 30, 40 years. You have about five guys probably in that mode right in the country, and when those guys step away, I don’t think you’ll be seeing anybody going 40 years anymore. It’s just a different environment. Those guys that did it and were able to sustain because it’s not just keeping your job; you’ve got to have success. And then you’ve got to have success over different eras, which things change. How about this? The game changes. The game seems to be changing about every five years now. You can’t say, ‘I’m going to coach the same way as I did when I first got started.’ And I’m not only saying your temperament or your personality coaching, I’m talking about how you’re playing defensively. What are you teaching? So when you look at what he’s done over generations and that he’s maintained that level of excellence, it’s amazing to me.”

On UK’s freshmen comparing themselves to Duke’s highly-touted freshman class …

“I don’t think they are. They’re excited about playing the game – my guys. I like my team. I’m good. We may be facing a team that’s better than us. OK. But over the long haul, the way this team practices, the way they get along, the grind of this, that each individual player has gotten better, I’m good. I want this team, and we’ll throw it up and see what goes on. But I don’t believe our freshmen – they shouldn’t. Like be who you are.”

On if he can remember changes he’s made in coaching style because of the way the game has changed …

“Well, there are things I never would’ve envisioned, which are (things like) switching. And not just the normal switch, three and four-way switches, which I never in my mind (thought I would do). Kind of like when I first heard of the dribble-drive and sat down with the guy (Vance Walberg) and put it on paper. I got a headache trying to figure out. And I would tell you here’s where I see the game going. I’ve been wrong before. Can I read tea leaves? How do I do with tea leaves? What the tea leaves tell me now is the game is becoming more and more random offensively. So it’s about spacing and randomness. If you can’t shoot, four, five years ago you could be drafted as a 6-5, 6-6 athletic (player). If you get drafted now like that and can’t shoot, you’ll be in the second round. Shooting, there’s a premium on shooting. But it’s more about random play. And defensively I think it’s gonna go more and more to switching, which means the game will be one-on-one. You’ve got to be able to break somebody down. The team that gets the most lane touches in the NBA – most lane touches – (is) Golden State. ‘No they don’t, they shoot all 3s.’ They get the most lane touches, which is why they have opportunities to shoot 3s. And you have to play their 3-point shooters because they all can shoot, which means the lane’s open for them to go and when you collapse– it’s kind of where the game’s going. Movement, quick movement of the ball. There’s no more ball stoppers, there’s no one guy catching it and (dribbling) – it’s just the tea leaves, and I’m not even that smart to see where this thing I see it going.”

On Tuesday being Election Day, the same day as the game …

“I thought about – you know because some of us, our staff, and I thought we only have two Kentucky kids. I thought about absentee ballots, and we have talked about the shootings, the bombs – we had a discussion about it. We had a discussion about far-right, far-left, how these kids are going to be effected by both. You’re not only effected by this, you’re effected by that too where you’re going. We talk about it. I talked about some of my beliefs that may not coincide with what you all think, or what the Catholic Church thinks that I’m a part of. But I told them – now you may feel different. Now whoever your candidate is, does he agree? And he doesn’t have to agree on every point. If you want that then you run, but we have talked about it. Absentee ballots, no I haven’t, now I may grab them right now and ask is it too late? It might be too late. Is it too late? We just have to go to the courthouse and say we’re out of town.”

#22, Reid Travis, Gr., F

On opening the season against a highly-ranked opponent …

“I’m excited to play our first game against such a big-time program. They have a lot of great players, great coaches. I think it’s the best thing for us – kind of get thrown into the fire right away and see where we’re at. We have a lot of things we need to work on still, but being able to use this as a measuring stick, I think, is going to be great for us.”

On whether Duke recruited him out of high school …

“I really looked at them very seriously. I took a visit there about a month before I ended up making my decision to go to Stanford. I did the whole process with them. Really liked it a lot. It’s a great school, but ultimately I decided to go to Stanford.”

On whether he considered Duke for his graduate transfer destination ...

“Yeah, I was thinking about a lot of schools. Definitely Duke was one that crossed my mind. The tradition and the program speaks for itself. I think I’d be naïve not to look their direction, too, when you’re trying to make a decision like that. But ultimately I ended up at Kentucky. But I have a lot of respect for what they do.”

On how much weight is on the veterans in such a big, early season game …

“I wouldn’t say there’s too much weight. The coaches have done a great job of taking that off of us and explaining that this is just another game. Obviously we’re excited. It’s a big game for us, but at the end of the day it’s just one of many throughout the season and we’re just going to use this to try and see where we’re at, see the things that we need to work on. So, not trying to make it bigger than what it is. It is our first game; we’re excited for that. But at the end of the day, we just know we’re going to be able to learn from this and continue to grow throughout the season.”

On what veterans might know about a big game that freshmen might not know …

“I think, not blowing it up to something that it’s not. It’s a big game – there’s a lot of excitement around it, a lot of hype – but at the end of the day, just trust your work, trust the work that we’ve put in as a team. Just knowing that we do have a long way to go; this is not by any means the finished product. This is game one of the entire season. Just understanding that we’ve got a lot of things to work on, a lot of things to develop. Just have fun with it. It’s the first game; t should be an exciting time. You should be enjoying it more than worrying about making mistakes. Just understand that this is one step in a long process.”

On what Coach Cal focused on after Friday’s exhibition game …

“Just our defense. I think that’s something we’ll hone in throughout the season. Every time we get to play a game, we’ll get to watch the film and get to zero in as far as activity, talking, being in the right spots. We even made adjustments in practice as far as fixing some of those things. So I think you’ll see as we progress and keep playing games, we’ll get better on the defensive end because we’ll have film to watch to get better on.”

On the biggest game he played at Stanford …

“We played at Kansas while I was there, and I would say that, other than postseason play, I would say as far as a regular-season game, that was probably the most, with the hype and the crowd and as far as playing in front of a packed crowd and things like that, was playing at Kansas. It was a great experience. You’re playing at a historical Allen Fieldhouse and you get to play against some great players and really just compete in that sense. It was great for me. It felt like the rims were shaking in there, so it was a great experience to play against those guys.”

On if playing at Kansas had any bearing on his transfer to a place like Kentucky …

“I don’t know if that particular memory crossed my mind. But obviously, looking at my last season of college basketball, exactly what I wanted. That crosses my mind. To play on the big stage, to play in big games like the one we have Tuesday, to play in front of a packed crowd at Rupp, that’s definitely something I wanted. I wanted to be on that stage and enjoy that atmosphere.”

On his knowledge of the Duke players …

“If you have social media, you watch ESPN, you get a good sense as far as who they have on their team. They have a lot of firepower, a lot of star players and things like that. A lot of respect for the recruiting class they brought in. They also have some veterans. I just know how their coaching staff prepares guys and how they recruit and the type of guys that they bring in. I have a lot of respect for the team and the program they have there. I know it’s going to be a tough task for us, it’s going to be a challenge for us, it’s going to push us and I think we couldn’t ask for anything more for our first game.”

#25, PJ Washington, So., F

On getting the season started …

“This is all we’ve been working for. We can’t wait to get things going, get started with the season and try to get as many wins as we can.”

On opening the season with a tough opponent like Duke …

“I think it’s great for us to go out there and play somebody like Duke. They’re a great team, a great program with great players, and we’re just excited to be able to play against somebody like that.”

On how many of the Duke players he knows …

“I know Zion (Williamson), R.J. (Barrett), Cam (Reddish). I know Tre (Jones) a little bit, but I’ve been watching them growing up playing on the AAU circuit so I’ pretty cool with most of them. They’re great players. They’ve been having a great preseason so far and I’m just excited to see what we can do against those guys. They’re under a great coach with Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) and we’re under a great coach as well, so we just have to go in and see who fights the most.”

On if this game feels any different than it did last year and if there are more or fewer nerves …

“Yeah, last year I just didn’t know what to expect. This year I kind of know what it’s going to be like. I know what Cal expects from me and I know what he expects from the team. I just have to go out there, do what he wants and just basically produce.”

On if he’s coached up or talked to any of the freshmen of what the environment is going to be like …

“I haven’t talked to them about it yet, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to sit down and talk once we get there and tell them about the atmosphere and stuff like that. We just have to go out there and play our game like we did in the Bahamas and be comfortable in our own skin.”

On if it’s tougher being the second matchup of the Champions Classic in the later game …

“Last year we had that as well. That game could go into overtime or stuff like that so we could be waiting all night. You just have to be prepared, go out there, do your thing, stay warm and be focused.”

On if he’d rather open the season with a team of Duke’s caliber than a lesser power …

“I’d rather play a great team like (Duke). I’m a competitor. I love playing against good teams and it’s always fun when you’re playing against somebody like that, who you know can give you a game, so you go out there and play your best.”