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Joel Justus & players preview Vanderbilt, talk progress & more

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The Wildcats talk about how they can get to 2-1 in SEC play.

Aaron Gershon - A Sea of Blue

The No. 18 Kentucky Wildcats are coming off their first win of the 2019 SEC, defeating Texas A&M 85-74 on Tuesday.

The performance was far better than the one Kentucky put together in Tuscaloosa last Saturday in their SEC opening loss to Alabama, but the Cats got off to another slow start and still have plenty to improve upon.

Kentucky’s next SEC opponent is the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday night at 8:30 pm EST at Rupp Arena.

Today, assistant coach Joel Justus, point guard Ashton Hagans, and forward PJ Washington spoke to the media about what the team needs to improve heading into Saturday and to preview Vandy.

It’s been a brutal start to SEC play for Vanderbilt, who lost to both Ole Miss and Georgia, who are the again projected to be the bottom feeders of the conference (though Ole Miss now looks like a legitimate top 25 team).

The Commodores came into the season with sky-high expectations, but a season-ending injury to star Darius Garland derailed the hype.

With Garland out, Vanderbilt has been left without a true point guard. Ashton Hagans has 19 steals in the last four games, which could lead to a significant mismatch.

After Tuesday’s game head coach John Calipari was vocally upset with his team. Washington commented on what has caused the most recent struggles saying, “we’re trying to get it to work. We’ve been working hard this week. I feel like the game tomorrow is going to be a big stepping stone for us.”

Here’s everything that Justus, Hagans, and Washington had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:

Joel Justus

On if the staff knew Jemarl Baker Jr.’s potential …

“For our staff, probably I was the only one just because I had seen him play there on the grassroots circuit he played on, which was the Under Armor circuit. You saw a guy who is a basketball player. He’s a guy that can guard multiple positions. He’s a guy who can play multiple positions on the offensive end. I think for us, when we’re recruiting backcourt guys, you always want someone that can create for themselves but first and foremost create for others because of what we’re going to have here. And the type of guys that we’re going to have and they type of players that have the type of dreams that they do, you need guys that can create for other people first but are also a threat that they have to be guarded.”

On if he’s nudging people about Baker since he saw his potential …

“No, no. And we all watched him eventually. With the technology that you have now with Synergy and all the other types of ways you can watch grassroots or high school basketball, we all cosigned on Jemarl. We all were excited about Jemarl. I don’t think anyone here is surprised that Jemarl is having some good moments and flashes. I think he’s aware, as well as everybody else, that this is still a process for him. Part of that is getting him in the best shape of his life, which has been hard because he has been hurt. We talked even a little bit the other day, this has been a really good time for Jemarl. When he got fully healthy was right there at the beginning of December when we got into that period where we had practices, game on Saturday, practices, game on Saturday. That allowed him to put in some extra work. Was at the end of the semester where classes were kind of tailing off and you just had to study and he could put in some extra work, which he did. Now you kind of get into a different rhythm with the conference play and you’re going to have a day off on Wednesday, which you need to take advantage of, have a really good practice like he did, we did on Thursday. Now you get into game prep again on a Friday, or Monday, whatever day the game is. I think we’re excited for him, but I think that we’re still seeing the beginning and scratching the surface of what he can become.”

On how the team is as a whole …

“I think it’s the same thing we always say: I think we want to be our best version tomorrow night. That’s basically who we’re striving to become today in practice. Both as individuals and collectively, we need to be our best today and then carry that over to tomorrow. I think Coach (John Calipari) is really working with the guys with their roles and making sure that he’s continuing to be clear with them that their continuing to understand what’s being asked of them. Also, that he is clear with the team on how he sees our best version tomorrow night, then Tuesday, then Saturday, and so on and so forth as the weeks go on. As it is here, these parts of our teams change. They evolve. Guys step up. Maybe some guys step back for a little bit. For us, the strength of who we are is that we do have depth and we have guys that are continuing to work. I think you see that with a guy like Jemarl. I think you see that with a guy like Ashton (Hagans). You see it with a guy like Immanuel (Quickley). They had some periods where they were so-so, and then they have times they were OK and now they are playing really well. I think the great thing for us, and our coaching staff thinks, ‘OK, who’s going to be the guy that steps up today in practice, or who’s going to be the guy that steps up tomorrow in the game?’ That’s the exciting part about the process, as you asked, is you’re just kind of waiting to see who’s next.”

On Ashton Hagans’ offense …

“I think the No. 1 thing is he’s continued to work. As with a lot of the guys on our team, this group of guys loves to work. These guys came here because they knew that it was going to be a process. They knew that they were going to have the access to get in the gym 24 hours a day. They knew that they were going to have the facilities. The blueprint has been here for guys before them, and the guys that come here are like Ashton. They know that they aren’t a finished product. They’re coming here to work. They’re coming here to work every day. They’re coming here to be coached. They’re coming here to work against other good players. Ashton, from the time that he stepped foot on campus, has embraced that. I think someone even asked the other day on the podcast that we do with TJ (Beisner) on Coach’s website, ‘What’s the best battle that we have.’ It’s Ashton and Immanuel. I don’t think it’s any surprise that those two guys are starting to go in a direction of positive playing time and productive minutes and efficient minutes. Ashton is a guy who’s worked. He works by himself, he works with other people. He’s a guy that takes advantage of all the coaches here, Coach Cal, Coach (Kenny) Payne, Coach (Tony) Barbee, myself. He’s a guy that loves to watch film. He’s a guy that’s trying to always learn. I think that comes from having Shai (Gilgeous)-Alexander go through what he went through last year and now he says, ‘OK, if that guy did it and look where he is, I want to be where he is.’ Much like the 10 other guys in that locker room. So I think for Ashton, he’s a guy that’s seen it work and he’s following the footsteps of a group of other guys that wanted to do the same thing.”

On Ashton Hagans starting to let it fly on jump shots …

“I don’t know about all that. I don’t know that we’re wanting Ashton to ‘let it fly,’ you know. I think we want him to be confident. I know that we want him to be ready to shoot balls. But like I said earlier, guys that play here have to be able to keep teams honest. I think you’ve seen, we’ve seen teams in the past lay off of guys. What it’s done is it’s clogged the paint and it’s really bogged us down offensively. For us to be our best and most efficient – and so does the rest of our staff (believe this) – we’ve got to have five guys on the floor that are threats, and whether that’s Ashton driving and creating for others, him stepping into a jump shot and shooting one confident, that’s gotta be who he is, not only for here but the next level as well. That’s something at we talk about daily with him and everyone else.”

On Hagans’ 19 steals in the last four games and why he’s so good at it …

“Yeah, that’s the guy you want on your team, that you want disruptive 94 feet, that you have the opposing point guard looking over their shoulder. Other guys wondering, ‘OK, where’s this guy at?’ That’s an unsettling feeling for a point guard to have somebody that can come after you that can come after you for as long as Ashton can and pick you up full court. He’s a presence when he’s off the ball. Coach is really working with him on trying to find steals, get deflections off the ball, which is difficult for young guys. The process, as we’ve talked about, is he’s learning to play off the ball. He’s such a menace off the ball and such a bulldog on the ball, now the work is really to become more effective and have a presence off the ball.”

On playing a team that doesn’t have a traditional point guard with Hagans’ defensive success …

“I think they have good basketball players, and however they decide to bring the ball up the floor, that’s something that we’ll have to adjust to. I think Ashton is going to impose his will on the game whoever we play whether they have a point guard or they have a nontraditional point guard. Ashton is going to, like I said, impose his will and get our team going and be disrupt.”

On if deflections and steals are more important when a team doesn’t have great rim protection …

“Well, I think Coach would say that defense starts with the point guard. I think if you have a guy that can get after the point guard and make him nervous, make him turn his back, turn his shoulders, now they’re not running offense at a quick pace. They’re not getting what they want, when they want, where they want it. That’s something that we’ve worked on with our wings with guys like Keldon (Johnson) and guys like Tyler (Herro), of making catches difficult. Now you’ve got a guy on the ball that’s being disruptive, now you’ve got guys generally in the areas where the first pass is being entered, making it difficult. And so you’re going get deflections there and so teams are running their offense farther away from the basket, where there’s more time to react, there’s more closing time when you don’t have maybe the best rim protection that we’ve had in the past. But I think our rim protection is getting better and I think that’s why Cal keeps talking about Nick Richards being an important part of this team and the development as we move forward. I think EJ (Montgomery) is in that same boat. He has a little bit more of a knack for blocking shots, a little bit more of a thirst to do so. So like I said, as we take the floor today and ultimately compete tomorrow, you want to see guys doing that, and that starts with Ashton being disruptive.”

On how important it is for guys to get in the gym and work on their game in their own time as a part of the process of growth and development …

“As a basketball player, you can’t count on anybody else to give you confidence. And that comes from you being in the gym by yourself, with your teammates, with other coaches to where you know when you step on the floor for practice, when you step out on the floor for a game, whether it’s the first offensive possession or the opportunity for a game-winning shot that you’ve put the time in. Our guys are supremely confident because they put time in, and I think that’s been pretty well-documented since this group got here in June. This group loves basketball. They like to watch basketball on TV, they watch themselves, they watch other players. And I think that the best basketball players, much like you might say most of the best athletes, the best sports journalists, have a curious mind. I’m not sure about you, Jerry (Tipton), but the rest of the group might in terms of you always look to see how others are doing it, whether it’s a more seasoned veteran like yourself or a younger member of the media that’s trying to do something. I think our guys are always watching NBA players. They’re watching other great college players to see, how can I become my best? If they’re doing something that works, why can’t I do that? So our group is confident, but it’s because they work; it’s not because Coach Cal or Coach (Kenny) Payne or Coach (Tony) Barbee or myself or anybody else. It’s just because they work.”

On how much of Calipari not being pleased last game with going under screens being a part of the youth process…

“I think a ton of it is youth, because I think it’s guys that are having to trust themselves. I think part of confidence comes on the defensive end, too. We’ve talked about defensive confidence here, and that’s the fact that you know that when you step out on that floor that you can guard the basketball. We’ve talked about being disruptive. Part of that is being confident, the same way as on the offensive end. Our guys just have to learn to take everything in, and I think they’re good job. It’s just these guys are in a new situation every single time they step out. It’s an opponent that’s wanting to beat their brains in. It’s an opponent that’s wanting to win for the first time against Kentucky maybe in their career. It’s a team that’s trying to win at Rupp Arena, and we’ve had to have some conversations about that, about who we’re playing and how important it is to everybody else. It has to become that important to us every single possession, not just at the end of the day.”

Ashton Hagans

On having 19 steals in the last four games …

“It’s just me playing my game, just playing on the defensive end, trying to get my teammates going. Other than that, I feel good about it, but just got to keep going as the season presses on.”

On what has allowed him to get so many steals …

“Just having my hands active, my teammates talking to me on defense. They’re letting me go for the steals and gamble when I can. Just keep my eyes open and see where the passes come from.”

On getting steals without fouling …

“In high school, you can foul all you want and coach is going to leave you in the game. But knowing that, in college, that two-foul rule is real. You get two fouls, you’re not getting back in the whole first half, so you don’t want to foul. I have learned from that, in a previous game when I picked up two quick ones, just being aggressive, knowing when they are going to call the foul or not.”

On Calipari not being happy with the team’s effort on Tuesday …

“I would say that we’ve got to be more player-driven. The past couple of practices before that game, he was having to talk to us a lot, the coaches had to say too much in practice. Players weren’t stepping up. But the UNC game and the Louisville game, we were anxious and ready to go out there and play. It’s just something we’ve got to work on.”

On John Calipari talking to him about Brandon Knight

Brandon Knight, (Calipari) talked to me about it a little bit. He was good on the defensive end and the offensive end, but he got it going on the defensive end. That’s just something I’m trying to do as the season goes along.”

On where he has improved on the offensive end …

“Finishing more at the room, not missing the easy ones. Also, I’ve been getting up a lot of shots. Finally knocked down a midrange in the game. Just got to stay in the gym, keep getting up shots and working on my reps.”

On if he can sense frustration from other guards when they face him …

“A little bit, because at the beginning of the game, they like to have the ball in their hands a lot. But as the game goes along, they move more off the ball. I can tell when they don’t really want to have the rock, so I just try to pressure up more.”

On going against Immanuel Quickley in practice …

“We’re just competing each and every day, going at it. He’s getting a lot better on the defensive end. Immanuel is a great player. That’s one of my close friends on the team. He’s just trying to get his game better each and every day. He’s in the gym a lot. I just think he’s trying to take his game to the next level, like everyone else.”

PJ Washington

On the matchup with a team in Vanderbilt without a true point guard …

“Same thing that’s been going throughout the whole season: Just go out there and make them get turnovers and let us get on the fast break and create offense for each other.”

On the lessons from the Texas A&M game …

“That we just need to bring it on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes. That’s one thing we’ve been trying to work on the whole year. I just feel like we need to start somewhere and keep getting better at it.”

On the 10-0 deficit against Texas A&M …

“We weren’t making shots and unfortunately they were making everything. I feel like our defense could have been better and our offense could have been better as well. I’m just glad we came out after the timeout and put some pressure on them.”

On his performance against Texas A&M …

“I got in foul trouble early so I had to come out and sit with Coach. In that second half, I tried to put some pressure on them, make a couple shots, get some rebounds and do the best I can for my team.”

On Jemarl Baker Jr. …

“He’s doing great. Jemarl’s a great player. He’s doing great in practice, making shots and getting everybody involved. That’s what we need him to do in the game. He’s playing defense as well, so that’s a plus for him.”

On Baker being more than just a shooter …

“He can make plays, he can get others involved and he can definitely shoot the lights out of the ball. We definitely want him to shoot the ball, but we definitely want him to make plays as well and guard. He can guard multiple positions on the floor, so it’s just great having a guy like that to be able to play with.”

On Ashton Hagans matching up with a team without a true point guard …

“He should be able to play his game. He should come out and try to disrupt on the defensive end like he’s been doing lately and he’ll be fine. I think we’ll be fine as well. If he brings that pressure on the defensive end, it’s going to help us a lot.”