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John Calipari, Kenny Payne & Wildcats preview Alabama

“The guys are all dialed in right now. I like where we are.“

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats have enjoyed a resurgence over the last two weeks with wins over North Carolina and Louisville.

Now, the Wildcats will begin SEC play Saturday when they hit the road to face the Alabama Crimson Tide.

On Thursday, head coach John Calipari hopped onto the SEC coaches teleconference to talk about his team and preview Saturday’s clash in Tuscaloosa. Later, assistant coach Kenny Payne and select players met with the media to also talk about their SEC opener.

Here is a recap of everything they had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:

John Calipari

Opening statement …

“We’re getting better. It takes time. The guys are all dialed in right now. I like where we are. More of a team, player-driven practice than a coach-driven practice. We’ve used the last two, three weeks to really spend more time being together and at the game. This is that time of the year where we try to do that every year. We’re getting better.”

On the amount of time he spends on scouting opponents vs. focusing on his team with the quick turnaround of conference play

“Well, there’s all kinds of ways of doing this. Different ways of playing, styles of play, ways of defending, different ways of defending pick-and-rolls, post-ups and isos. The other thing that happens is how much time do you spend on the other team vs. your own team is also a coaching style. I learned from Larry Brown to worry more about your team than the other. Normal situation when we’re playing Tuesday-Saturday, our team will not see video on the other team until the meal on game day. We will have been giving them in practice what they need to know. There are certain things a team can hurt you with and certain things you have to take away. We never give a scouting report as far as paper scouting report, but I get one. As a coach, I’ve watched their last five games. I want stats from their last five games. I really don’t care about November, and we go from there. Again, I’m just telling you, there’s all kinds of ways of doing this. I’m not saying it’s right. It’s the way that I learned when I started with Larry Brown.”

On what the focus has been during the break on offense …

“Well, we really had to define roles a little bit better and I had to help them with that. As we did that, people rolled into those positions and started playing better. I said from day one that this should be my best 3-point shooting team that I’ve had since I’ve coached here and it’s becoming that now. Early in the year we weren’t willing passers, which made shots tough. We were slow getting shots off and most of them were contested. We didn’t have great spacing where we posted the ball. Because one of our strengths is that we can throw the ball to the post to two or three different people and force you to do stuff. Well, our spacing was so bad that we didn’t get it. So, we’ve worked really hard on those areas to make sure that happens and then we’re trying in transition to – like I said, if we’re defending the way we are, why aren’t we getting breakouts? Why aren’t we getting baskets in transition? Again, defining roles a little bit has helped us with that. This period of time, I don’t know where it was nicknamed ‘Camp Cal,’ but back in the day – we have two or three sessions a day. Some of it’s film. Some of it’s on the court. Some of it’s scripted. Some of it’s practice. Some of it’s a movie. Some of it’s time together as a team. But, they’re not in class. We give them their one day a week off it’s been on a Sunday. And then the rest of the time it’s all basketball or we’re together. Now that will end next week when we start class, but by next week we’re going every Tuesday-Saturday, so, you know, our day off in my mind would be Wednesday and a light day on Sunday. Wednesday would be an off day, a light day on Sunday and the rest you’re playing games from that point on.”

On his impressions of the NCAA’s new NET rankings …

“I was on the group that was part of the group of coaches, along with (former SEC commissioner) Mike Slive, who was the chairman of the group, to come up with ideas to make the selections more fair. The one way of doing it, which was people gamed the system, which was who scheduled and teams that are going to have wins that you can beat. And all of a sudden we had leagues that when they played each other, you lost and you went up because teams were 11-0, 12-0, played a schedule of games against lower-level teams but teams with good records. So we all came up with, ‘There’s gotta be a better way of doing this.’ And then, through that same system, they would rank your top 50 wins. And so now you had leagues – that’s why they were getting 10 teams in based on that. So the NET now comes back with, let’s deal with efficiency and throw that in the mix. It’s not only efficiency, it’s both. It now kind of eliminates the opportunity for teams to game the system so that their league gets 10 teams in. And when they were doing it, eight of the teams lost in the first round. So I think it’s a good thing. Now let me say this: It may need tweaked. Great. Well, then tweak it. Let’s play it out and see how it plays out. I was always more concerned about efficiencies than I was the RPI because I thought it would say more about your team. How are you defensively? How are you offensively? Are you an efficient team, which means you’re going to win most of your games? But I know that you could also game that (the efficiencies) if the RPI is not involved. My one thing that they did not take was I think (the selections) should be an S-curve. An S. One, two three. After you pick the teams one through 64, 68, however you’re doing this, you then go S. One, two, three four. Five plays four, six plays (three). You know, you just go S. Keep S-ing. Now what happens if two league teams happen to play each other early? Well, just keep them on the same line but move them a little bit. But they don’t move two lines. So now at the end, you don’t have a team – every year it seems that has the best road to the Final Four and there are certain teams that have the hardest road you’ve ever seen called death row. Well, that’s only because you’re not doing the S-curve. Now I have people that disagree with me, which, you know, I’ve been wrong before. I think it was 1978, ’77, ’78. I think that’s the last leg of this. I like the fact that we announce who the top 16 teams are (before Selection Sunday). Because you can’t all of a sudden just surprise us. And, you know, I think the coaches did a good job. So I’m saying with the NET, let it play out. Let’s see how it goes, and if f it needs to be tweaked a little bit, we’ll tweak it.” s

Kenny Payne

On John Calipari defining roles and how advantageous that is for players …

“To take it a step further from what you’re saying, winning basketball, championship basketball – for us to be a championship team, what does Ashton Hagans have to do? He has to be a pest defensively. He has to get people shots. He has to push the ball in transition and he has to control the offense. That’s his role. Sometimes roles change. We need, for example – Reid (Travis) was at Stanford. I didn’t realize this: For two years he had nine blocked shots. He’s right now at 10. Ten or 11. So his role when he walked in these doors, for us to win, the players that we’ve had that play your position, they block shots. They defend multiple positions. They score around the basket. They score facing up. They’re playmakers when they face up and you beat people off of the dribble. It’s been huge for us this Camp Cal period of defining roles, but more importantly than just defining them, having them work on the roles that they’re going to be in.”

On what EJ Montgomery’s role is …

“Cal is trying to figure EJ out. To me, EJ has already established he can block shots. He can rebound at a high clip. He’s active when he’s on the floor. There was a stretch in the first half of the Louisville game where him and Nick (Richards) were out there together and the lead expanded and it gave PJ (Washington) and Reid (Travis) time to rest. We need that from them because if we’re going to play games and Reid is playing 37, 38 minutes and PJ’s playing 35, 36 minutes, they’re going to wear down. We need them playing somewhere between 28 and 32 minutes. So, that means EJ and Nick really have to be a pivotal part of what we’re doing.”

On what makes Montgomery difficult to define his role …

“He’s learning and then he’s a good basketball player and we have to get him out there on the floor to allow him to be successful. Also, just fitting in with this team and finding space for him to succeed. We need everybody. Every hand on deck has to produce. So we need EJ Montgomery to come in and play, and play with confidence, and play with energy, and effort and rebound, and make a shot and to just play winning basketball.”

On anything the coaches stressed to get the team to buy in defensively …

“I just think when we were playing early on quote-unquote schools that people thought that we should dominate, as I watched the tape personally – me personally – I saw teams that people were saying that Kentucky should beat them by 20. Well, when you watch them play and you see that they’ve got juniors and seniors, fifth-year seniors and they play hard, and they’re energetic – and so what the name on the chest isn’t the big name? Well, when you’re playing freshmen at all guard positions, the perimeter positions, that’s a test. They were running offenses that would cause us problems and then we wouldn’t really buy in or we would have lapses defensively and so those lapses end up making the game an 8-10, 12-point game. Well, if we’re going to be a great defensive team, a team again I say trying to win a championship, we have to be on point for 40 minutes defensively. We’ve made a big jump. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve made a big jump.”

On what Jemarl Baker Jr. has brought to the mix …

“I think for us as coaches, it started out everybody is talking about the jump shot, but when you watch the film and you see the game, he’s fighting defensively. He’s giving us positive minutes on the floor by being solid offensively, but more importantly getting after it defensively. We need that.”

On Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr.

“Kira Lewis really should be going into another year of high school. He’s a very, very good basketball player. When you watch film and you see his impact on Alabama basketball, he’s pretty good. We knew it because, you know, we talked to him. (We) talked about him and recruited him a little bit, but he’s a really good basketball player who controls a lot of stuff for their team. He’s going to be a handful because he can shoot it. He’s really fast and he can pass the basketball.”

On the development of players and the ability to play above your age group …

“It just goes to show there’s talent out there. Once they get into environments that are conducive to them personally, they thrive. He’s playing confidently. You look at him and you would never think that he’s a freshman. He’s controlling the game with poise and being patient. He’s shooting the ball and he’s putting a team of veteran players sort of on his back.”

On if there are parallels of Lewis to Hagans …

“There are. I think the period during this Coach Cal camp period, I think Ashton has got his conditioning, which changes his whole dynamics of who he is as a player, which means: Before this period, he got tired really quick, and when he got tired he had defensive lapses. By being in better condition, by working on the things he needed to work on two and three times a day, we’ve seen a big jump. He’s helped our team become better. The job he did on the kid from North Carolina (Coby White): unbelievable. The way he played down the stretch vs. Louisville. How about his first-hand layup ever? Can’t make them in practice; made it in the game. So he’s had a major impact on what we’re doing. The scary part is 50 percent. There’s 50 percent more in him.”

On how much of an impact a player has who can shut down an opposing player …

“Major. Major impact. One of the things we talk about here is that it’s easy to talk about scoring. Championship basketball, winning basketball, reaching your dreams as a basketball player means you can impact the game in other ways. We don’t want players here that can go score 30 points a game, get two rebounds and one assist. You can’t help us win a championship with that. Get 15 points, get eight rebounds, get seven assists, get three blocks. When I look at PJ Washington’s defensive numbers and rebounding numbers, two or three steals and four blocks and eight rebounds, I’m saying, ‘Dude, do that every single day of your life and you’ll have a long career.’ ”

On how hard that is to do …

“It’s very hard to do. It’s borderline impossible, but that’s what your dream is: the borderline impossible.”

On the improvement in Tyler Herro’s shot to what we saw Saturday vs. Louisville …

“It started before Saturday. Maybe I think it was the Utah game. What was happening was – and without going too much into depth – Tyler Herro practices and works out two or three times a day. He’s got five people telling him how to shoot, and what happened was, the way he practiced shooting the ball and what we were seeing in the game: totally different. Not even close. So if he’s shooting 3,000 shots a day that are the same, the moment he got in the game, that shot was nothing like those 3,000 shots. It’s not going to go in.”

On why those shots in the game were so different …

“Because the mindset of, ‘I’ve gotta make this shot. I’m anxious in my mind to make this shot. I’m not following through. I’m not shooting on balance. I’m landing on one foot.’ All of those things affected his shooting at games. It’s never technique. It’s never anything else other than I practice what I shoot and I do it in the game. More importantly than that, Tyler Herro has become an example of why you do what you do the way that you do it. Example: Everybody is talking about his jump shot: his dad, his shooting coaches, his coaches here, his high school coaches, his AAU coach. When we watch film, you know what he does really well? He gets to the basket and finishes with both hands really well. You ready? He gets in passing lanes and gest steals and gets layups. He can beat somebody off the dribble and make a shot. We want basketball players. If you want to be a shooter and just be a shooter? You probably should have went to another school. This is a basketball player’s school. And he’s proven that he can do all of it. So, the great lesson for him is: I was shooting 25, 26 percent from 3 but I was averaging 14, 15 points and I was getting layups, midrange, steals, offensive rebounds, floaters. That’s the lesson.”

On Alabama’s Donta Hall

“Big, athletic, really active around the basket. Excellent rebounder around the basket. We have to keep him off the glass. Blocks shots. He’s a force around the basket. He’s going to be a big piece of them having success, but we’ve got to make sure he doesn’t have success.”

On what SEC road environments are going to be more hostile than the one they faced at Louisville …

“I just think that anytime you’re playing on the road, the true test of a player, the true test of a team is can you go on somebody else’s court and have success? As a player, I wanted to be the player that had better games on the road than I did at home. I hope that we teach these guys that. Because playing at home is one thing, but if you’re going to be a championship team, you’ve got to go into the other team’s home and beat them. Find a way to beat them. And it doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be a W.”

On what Nick Richards has to do to carve out a role …

“I just think Nick is headed in the right direction. Again, the first half of the Louisville game, he had positive minutes. Something happened where somebody beat him to a ball for a rebound. Well, in the second half of games, when it’s an eight- to 10-point game and can go either way, you’ve gotta have that ball. And we needed him to have that ball. So Coach took him out and told him, ‘These are the pivotal moments where you’ve gotta perform, that you’ve gotta produce. Nobody’s going to outwork you to get the basketball.’ His role is going up. He’s going to be fine. We need him. Not we want him. We need Nick Richards to be really, really good for us to go far into the tournament.”

Jemarl Baker Jr.

On the team heading into the Alabama game …

“It’s been going well. We’ve just been working hard, doing a lot of conditioning. (Coach) Cal’s been preaching that lately, so we’ve been working really hard to try to prepare as best as we can.”

On getting more opportunity to play …

“For sure. I’ve just been working hard, trying to take advantage of every opportunity I’ve gotten and just trying to get better every day. That’s all I can really do.”

On how good it feels to be playing …

“It’s great. It’s great. I’ve been having so much fun just being able to practice, work out, playing games. I’ve been having a lot of fun.”

On the mood of the team entering SEC play …

“Like I said, just trying to get better every day. We’ve been real focused, paying attention to everything Cal has been having to say and just working hard, working really hard, competing and being confident in everything we’ve been doing as a group.”

On defining his role …

“I’m still working on it. I’m still trying to, I guess, fit it on the team and figure out where I can do what I’m best at and things like that. I feel like I’ve been getting better for sure every practice and the couple games I’ve played I feel like I’ve been getting better. I’m just going to continue to get better, continue to try to figure out how I can play off of people.”

On what he remembers from SEC play last year …

“Just competing and all the passion that went into it. I remember how excited the team was. Just going into SEC play this year, we’re really excited and we’re just ready to work hard and have fun.”

Keldon Johnson

On whether they are recapturing the “mojo” of the Bahamas …

“We’re just trusting each other, playing as a team. We’re just enjoying the process, enjoying getting better every day and just enjoying each other. That’s just the main thing. You can see we’re having more fun out there. We’re playing as a team. We’re talking more. We’re doing everything more and the plan is just to get better each and every day.”

On what’s exciting about playing at Alabama …

“It’s SEC play. It’s all important now. It’s been important. We’re excited for every game because we know it’s a chance for us to get better each and every day.”

On how hard Tyler Herro works and how much of a relief it was for him to shoot well at Louisville …

“He works hard. There’s no doubt. You can ask anyone on the team. He’s always in the gym. He’s always working. We were all happy for him, to see him hitting shots, because he was struggling for a little bit. He would make one, miss one, but we know what Tyler can do. We’ve seen Tyler shoot and we know what it is. It’s just a matter of time before he starts hitting his shots.”

On how much this team has grown over the last couple weeks …

“We’ve grown a lot I would say. As you guys can see, we’re out there trusting each other and things like that. I think we still have a lot of improvement (to make) too.”