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Kenny Payne previews Auburn Tigers, challenges Cats to prove the doubters wrong

It’s time for the young Cats to man up and show what they’re made of.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats are getting set for one of, if not their most challenging game of the 2017-18 season.

It comes Wednesday night when the face the Auburn Tigers, who are ranked in the top 10 of the latest AP Poll. They also check in at No. 6 in RPI, so playing in their building is the most difficult game on paper that UK will face in the regular season.

Ahead of the game, assistant coach Kenny Payne met with the media to preview the Tigers. Payne also talked about how the Cats need to step up and prove their doubters wrong, as there aren’t many people who think the Cats can win at Auburn Arena.

Here is a recap of everything Payne had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics.

On John Calipari’s comments that he’s glad the game is at Auburn against a ranked opponent …

“I think if you’ve been around Cal long enough, you realize opportunity. This is a great opportunity for us to go into a hostile environment – a bunch of young players, freshmen and sophomores – and go steal one. That’s the game plan – go take one from them. They’re not going to give it to us. Without a doubt, they’ve been one of the best teams in this conference. They only have two losses in conference. Everything will say we’ve got our hands full, so go prove people wrong.”

On how much of a challenge they’re facing with losing and if the fact that some players never really lost much in high school has anything to do with that …

“That’s a great point. I think the challenge is there’s four-, five-, six-minute stretches in games where we’re not producing, where we go four minutes without a basket, where we go five minutes and (opposing teams) score seven out of eight possessions. We’re not good enough to make that up. We’re just not. We’re a good team, but when you give teams baskets – literally give them baskets – and it’s going to come down to a two-, four-, six-point game, you look back at the game in those four-minute spurts that happened multiple times throughout the game, they end up killing you.”

On how well he thinks the guys understand how tough it is to make that up …

“I think they’re learning that, but they’re young and inexperienced to that. They’re getting a lesson that there are no excuses at Kentucky. There is no, ‘My stomach hurts. I don’t feel good. I’m fighting the flu. I don’t have it tonight.’ There is no, ‘The referee gave me a bad call.’ There is no, ‘I was open and he didn’t pass it to me.’ The end result to all of this is that we brought you here to be winning basketball players or you wouldn’t be here. That’s your DNA or you would not be in this program. At the end of the day, you have to produce regardless of how you feel and how you think. There are moments out there when they’re second-guessing themselves. And for all of you guys to really understand this, coaching doesn’t start when guys are playing well. Anybody can coach a team when everything is going hunky dory; it’s when things are bad, it’s when adversity hits, it’s when kids have self-doubt, it’s when the ball doesn’t go in the hole and the kid doesn’t believe it’s going in the hole. How does he fight through that? Are you helping him through that? That’s what we do as coaches. That’s what Coach Cal has traditionally done and he’s continuing to do. It’s to do everything in his power to give his guys a chance to win a game, but more importantly play a certain way that gets you out of a rut.”

On how they will determine each player’s minutes …

“I guess we’ll just, when a guy is tired, if a group has it going on, if there are five guys on the court and they have a great momentum in the game, we’ll let them stay a little longer and just play it by ear and play it by feel.”

On how guys are taking advantage of the rotations …

“Well, when you are doing a rotation, you are guaranteed certain minutes. So at the 17-minute mark, there is going to be three guys that are coming in. Well, the group on the court may be playing bad. They may need to come out in one minute. So we’ve allowed them to stay out there a little longer, so that would be one way of taking advantage of those minutes.”

On the size advantage against Auburn …

“I think our advantages are going to be our length, our athleticism. They are not a tall team. They are basically, it looks like, three or four guards and a forward. Their tallest guy is 6-7, 6-8 that is playing minutes. We have to take advantage of that. That means offensive rebounding, that means stuff around the baskets we have to be strong. We have to be the aggressor. We have to go after them. We really have to go out and play desperate basketball and confident basketball, which is really important.”

On what Nick Richards needs to do become more of a factor …

“I just think Nick needs to play confidently. Another way of saying it is get out of your own self’s way. You’re trained. You are walking in the games, playing a good game. So what happens when you step on the court. You’ve been trained, you prepared, you know you worked hard, you put your time in. What is happening whenever you step on that court – and it is not just for Nick; it’s for any kid – if you will put your work in, the hours and the days before we play our game and you are feeling good about yourself, what happens when you are in the battle? What changed in your mind mentally that made you have self-doubt. That’s what the challenge is with him. He’s a good player and he needs to go out there and believe in him the way we do.”

On if Wenyen Gabriel needs to take more shots …

“Well, Wenyen is one of our veteran players and Wenyen is a good player and he gives us everything he has. When you look over the last four or five games, I think he is averaging two or three shots. He is a kid that can make jump shots for us. We desperately need shooting. He can do that, so we gotta get him on the floor. And it’s not on Wenyen; the other guys when he’s open to get him the ball in his shooting pocket so he can relax and shoot the ball. Really that simple.”

On having to use different teaching techniques for the younger players through their struggles …

“No question, it is definitely different. I mean, what Quade Green needs is different than what Nick needs. What PJ (Washington) needs is different than what Quade needs. What Jarred (Vanderbilt) needs is different than what PJ needs. What Kevin Knox needs is different. They all have these mental makeups. No player is the same and they all have insecurities. They all have self-doubt. Our jobs are to make sure that they understand they are good enough or we would have never recruited you.”

On trying to ease them through this difficult phase …

“We are trying to get them to believe, and I think it is more than just massage them. I think you have to hold each young person accountable. You have to make sure that you love them, that you – I hate to say the word but – hit them in the face but hit them with reality. That means challenge them, get after their butts. When you are not playing hard, when you’re tired, that’s not acceptable, and we are going to get after you for that. For you to miss free throws when we shoot hundreds of free throws every day, that’s not acceptable. That means there is mental block that is allowing to not believe you are going to make this free throw and you’re missing. Why? We are going to challenge you on that. We are going to challenge you as a freshman to think like a senior. We are going to challenge you as a college player to think as a professional player. That’s what we do here.”

On Coach Cal coaching against Bruce Pearl …

“I think Cal wants to beat everybody he plays against. I think Cal respects Bruce Pearl. He’s a really good coach. He has a well-coached team. Their team has come together through adversity, and it’s a tribute to him the way they’re playing. Coach Cal respects that, but with that being said, is there a difference between coaching against Rick Barnes and Bruce Pearl? Probably in the back of his mind, but at the end of the day he wants to beat all of them.”

On if the staff references the 2011 and 2014 seasons …

“We’ve told them. Cal has done a great job of explaining historically what teams have been similar coming down the stretch, losing three of four, and then they clicked. Having adversity and then all of a sudden you figure it out and you go out and you fight for 40 minutes. You change the landscape of where the program is and where you are as a player and where we are as a team. This team is capable. This team is more than capable even though they’re young. We’re not using youth as an excuse; we just need them to fight, to not give up four, five-minute stretches of lackluster basketball. If you can do that, you give us a winning chance.”

On Shai Gilgeous-Alexander being a leader …

“Shai has been a leader. Shai has come out and his character and his will to win has been really good. He is a leader, not by his words, because young kids don’t – you know, they’re friends. They’re not respecting Shai more than they respect themselves. But the way he plays on the court, I think those guys love Shai. I think they respect Shai, and that’s more important than following Shai – the fact that they respect him as a player and they want to be with him in the battle.”