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Wildcats preview Mississippi State, talk recent success, the road ahead & more

The Wildcats are surging, but how do they plan to maintain their recent run of success?

Aaron Gershon - A Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are in the midst of a four-game winning streak, but keeping it going will be no easy task.

After a critical two-point win on the road over a ranked Auburn team, the Wildcats are back in the top 10 at No. 8 in the country as they begin a week where they will play two more ranked teams.

That starts Tuesday night when the Wildcats return to Rupp Arena to take on the No. 22 Mississippi State Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs will come into Lexington with the same overall record as Kentucky (14-3) but, a conference record of 2-2.

Their losses came to the two surprises of the conference so far South Carolina and Ole Miss, as well as Arizona State from the PAC 12.

Despite all of their losses being against teams unranked at the time they played, the Bulldogs are not an opponent to be taken lightly.

The Bulldogs are loaded with talented and experienced returners, including the Weatherspoon brothers, who made life extremely difficult for the Wildcats in their 2018 meeting.

The Cats also have to be sure to stay focused on the task at hand and not turn their focus to the battle of blue bloods Saturday with No. 9 Kansas.

Today, assistant coach Tony Barbee, PJ Washington and EJ Montgomery met with the media to preview their upcoming game with Mississippi State, what’s led to their recent success, and what’s ahead.

Here’s a recap of what they had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:

Tony Barbee

On what the best thing they got from Auburn was …

“Responded. That’s a tough environment. It was really loud in there. They are a very experienced team. You knew they weren’t going to be rattled, and then when they put pressure on us down the stretch – our team is so young, I think we showed our resolve, our toughness playing on the road in that kind of environment that we were able to respond when they responded. That’s a trait of a championship team when you can do that in that kind of environment.”

On if Mississippi State has the same experience as Auburn …

Similar experience it seemed like. When you’re watching their team and getting prepared for them, similar to Auburn that they’ve got those guys that have been around for 10 years. Like, they should have graduated by now or be off in the NBA somewhere. They’re a talented, veteran team. Obviously two different styles. Very contrasting styles between what Auburn does and how they play and what Mississippi State does. It will be kind of night and day playing against the two different teams.”

On what Mississippi State’s style is …

“Just a little more deliberate. Not as fast as pace. Not as quick at shots, more deliberate. Take advantage of their big guys. They’ve got great size and depth in the interior, but their guards get a lot done too. It seems like (Lamar) Peters has been their forever. The Weatherspoon brothers (Quinndary and Nick) have been there forever. It just seems like those guys have been there forever, and so they play with their pace, they don’t get rushed and they get the shots that they want to get every time down. We’re going to have to be as good as we were defensively at Auburn at home tomorrow.”

On how long it takes freshman to learn to use screens in terms of taking it tight and how it seems like Tyler Herro is getting it …

He is. Keldon (Johnson) is. Those guys are no different than any of the freshmen we’ve had here over the years. It’s a rollercoaster ride. They’re typical freshman until we get into late January, early mid-February, then you see those guys – they know they’ve been through so many games at this level, they’ve seen all the different defenses and how people play them, how physical it is in league play. But those are two guys, Keldon and Tyler, specifically that they are getting a little quicker than some of the freshman we have had. They’ve got a toughness about them, especially on the offensive floor.”

On if Reid Travis is setting as good of screens as any guy Coach Cal has had …

“Yeah. You don’t want to run into Reid because you’re going to stop dead in your tracks. He does a great job of setting them and those guys. A few of the others guys are doing a good job of setting their men off and coming off of it tight, which allows him to get a good hit on the defender.”

On how embracing Herro is at wanting the ball at the end of the game and if it is emerging as he gets confidence …

“No, he’s had it from day one. Ultimate confidence guy, never rattled, never flustered. Doesn’t matter time, score, situation, game, level of game, opponent, does not matter. He doesn’t see that. He’s just out there having fun, playing the game of basketball, and that’s why he doesn’t get rattled in those moments and wants to take and make the big shots.”

On a progress report for 3-point defense …

“It’s getting better. It’s getting better. You look at Auburn’s 13 makes, it’s their average. You think that’s a little higher for usual but when you take 40 a game you’re going to make a pretty good percentage of them. We did a fairly good job in the first half against Auburn, but give them credit. And Bryce Brown, give him credit. He got really hot and he takes and makes some difficult shots. He didn’t make them in the first half, made most of them in the second half. I think defensively you are seeing the track of Cal’s normal teams. It’s a rollercoaster ride because you have so many young guys and their head is spinning defensively with all the different offenses that they are seeing that they are having to guard and personnel. Now they are getting settled into a rhythm. They have seen a couple of different things a couple different times now, so when you become familiar with something you become more comfortable, and that’s what you can see. Especially with our young guys, they are getting more and more comfortable on the defensive end of the floor and it’s making our defense that much better.”

On the way the offense is progressing …

“You look at Cal’s teams, historically, going back to the teams that I played on, he’s always had a team of guys. He’s never really had a team where one guy averages 25 points a game and everyone else is in single digits. He’s always had teams of four and five guys of double-figure scoring. Some nights it your night. Some nights it’s the other guy’s night depending on whether you’ve got it going or how the defense is playing you. You look at Auburn and you’ve got Keldon and Tyler and Cal said, ‘Look, we’re going to need you two to score in this game.’ By the way they defend, those guys were going to have to go get it because they were going to make it harder on Reid Travis and PJ (Washington), so those guys stepped up. This next game, who knows. The game before could be somebody else’s game. That’s when you have a team that can do a lot of special things. When you’ve got multiple guys that can step up on any given night.”

On the size of Herro and Johnson and how it helps them score …

“It’s easier for them to score given their size and their experience. They can get to their spots. They do a good job of reading screens. They both can shoot it from the 3-point line, so now you’ve got to respect them and chase them off the line. If not, they’re going to knock those things down. If you do that, they’re capable of getting to a hard shot, that mid-range shot in today’s game where most coaches don’t like it. Cal’s one who doesn’t mind it because those two guys in particular are good at getting to eight, nine, 10 feet. They’ve got pull-ups. They’ve got runners. I think Tyler had a finger roll from about nine feet at Georgia, the last game, that hit the bottom of the net. So, those guys are crafty scoring the ball and their size makes it easier for them to do it in different spots on the floor.”

On how close Jared Harper’s shot was to going down …

“It looked down. For us sitting on the bench it looked like it was in, but we defended it the way we wanted to defend that shot. We had to get him off the 3-point line. If you let him dance with the ball and pull into a 3, that’s as good of a layup for him as confident as he is as a scorer and shooter. He’s not as efficient in that midrange area because of his size. So, we wanted to get him off the 3-point line, which we were capable of doing. We wanted him going left, not to his right. Fortunate for us he missed because he had a clean look.”

On Aric Holman …

“He’s really grown over his time at State. He’s added weight to his body. He’s strong. He’s confident in what he’s doing, and he’s shooting the ball as good as anybody in our league, guard or big or in between. I think in league play right now he’s over 50 percent from the 3 and taking a lot of them. I think he’s making three per game in their last five games – making three, not taking three. He’s making three 3s per game. I like what I see out of him. He’s gotten better over these years and that’s what happens when you stay some place for three or four years. You’re going to become better.”

On if Mississippi State adds a challenge for the bigs …

“Especially the way we like our bigs protecting the rim, it becomes a challenge because now they’re going to be stretched beyond the three, especially in that position.”

On the defense going into tomorrow …

“We’ve got to be a little more disciplined defensively in the half-court for a more extended period of time. I think, watching Auburn, they’re going to take a shot within the first eight seconds of the shot clock the majority of the time. Mississippi State is the opposite. They’re going to take a shot in the last eight seconds of the shot clock the majority of the time. So, we’re going to have to be more disciplined. We’re going to have to communicate for a longer period of time. That’s more of a challenge with so many young guys that we play.”

On teams taking shots 30 seconds in and how much better prepared they are for that now …

“It’s come with the experience our guys have gained. We expect, like Cal says, the clock for our guys is sped up a little bit here. Their learning curves got to be faster. You can’t stay over four years. You’re going to get it because most of the guys don’t stay that long. That being said, this team is starting to get it through the maturity, through the experience, through the different type of games and styles they’ve seen now. So, when we say this is what we’re going to see this particular game, now let’s take you back in your memory bank and you think this is the team we’ve played that do that. This is what it’s going to look like. Those guys go OK – the light goes on and they say, ‘OK, now I know what we’ve got to do.’ It makes it easier the further we get into the season.”

On if Mississippi State is a trap game …

“You would say that if they weren’t ranked in the top 25 and as good and as talented and as experienced as any team in our league. If those three factors weren’t there, yeah, maybe you could say trap game. Not with this Mississippi State team. They’re as good as any team in our league. Their depth. Their experience. They’ve got size. They’ve got guard play. They’re not deficient in any one area. So, for that reason, no, not a trap game at all. These guys got our full attention.”

EJ Montgomery

On life in the SEC …

“It’s been good. Learning to play every day. Just going out there and having fun.”

On if it’s nice to hear an opposing coach say nice things about him …

“Yes, definitely. Coming from another coach that’s (from) a team you’re going against and still get compliments is pretty good.”

On what he’s trying to improve on …

“Just fighting every possession when I get on the court. That’s the main thing coach wants me to do is just fight, just go out there and contribute for the team.”

On if he thinks his big game is coming …

“I’m trying to say it’s coming, I’m waiting for it. I just keep working and whatever time I get, just go out there and compete.”

On if he has trouble staying positive …

“No, I stay positive. My teammates help me, they always keep me positive, tell me to keep my head up and keep working. It’s a process.”

On what strengths Coach Calipari wants him to play to …

“He just tells me just to fight and the other stuff is going to happen for me, scoring and stuff like that. He just wants me to just fight, go out there and rebound and play as hard as I can.”

On if he’s frustrated that his shot is not going down …

“A little bit. When I get in the game, I think my shot’s going in, and it doesn’t. I’ve just got to keep working, keep shooting and just stay in the gym.”

On if he’s feeling more comfortable on the court …

“I feel like I’m getting comfortable, learning the college game now more and just trying to go out there and compete.”

On preparing for big games this week …

“Just trying to prepare the best we know and listen to Coach Cal and go out there and compete, like we’ve been doing.”

PJ Washington

On what he and Reid Travis were saying at Auburn to keep the team together …

“We just need to keep doing what we’re doing, keep getting stops on the defensive end and translate it to the offensive end and get some easy buckets, get to the basket and make some layups. And then make some 3s when we need to.”

On why big games cause them to come together …

“I feel like in the bigger games we want it more. We want to go out and play tougher opponents. I feel like everybody’s more excited when we play better teams. We like playing good people.”

On Mississippi State …

“It’s always great going against competitive teams. You get to see where you’re at on both ends of the floor, all 40 minutes. You gotta go out there and fight. It’s great having a group of young guys that’s willing to do that. It’s always fun trying to play against somebody that can beat you.”

On Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon

“They’re pretty good. I played with Nick in high school a couple times, so I know him pretty well. And the older brother’s pretty nice too. I think he had a good game against us last year. We just gotta go out and just try to contain both and I think we’ll be fine.”

On where the team is in its development …

“I think we’re ahead of schedule. I think last year we didn’t really figure it out until late February, but now we’re in January figuring it out. We just gotta keep on this path and keep things rolling on both ends of the floor.”

On why they are ahead of schedule …

“I feel like we want it more. Everybody’s in the gym still working to this day. Everybody’s locked in and focused on what the team needs.”

On Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro’s scoring taking pressure off the bigs …

“It’s a lot easier when they’re making shots. They spread the floor really well, they play off each other really well and then they play defense together really well. Just having them two on the floor is really good for us.”

On playing on the road …

“Everybody’s against us on the road and we feed off that. It’s just fun going out and ruining people’s weekends and weeks and stuff like that. That’s our (motto) we talk about in the locker room, going out and ruining their weekends and stuff like that. We just get fired up when playing on the road.”

On being focused for this game …

“Always. We’re always focused on the next opponent and we’re not looking past anybody. That’s how you lose games here. We’re obviously just focused on Mississippi State and what they do on offense and defense. That’s what we’ve been working on yesterday and then today too. I don’t think we’re looking past them at all. We know they’re a good team and we know they’re capable of beating us. We just gotta come out and play our game.”