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Joel Justus and Wildcats talk Mount St. Mary’s, fall signing class and more

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The Cats preview Friday’s matchup and discuss the recruits set to join the team next year.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are back in Rupp Arena on Friday when Mount St. Mary’s comes to town.

The 1-4 Mountaineers come to town fresh off a 58-51 loss to UAB and their lone win being over Division III Gettysburg. They did push Georgetown and Washington on the road, so the Wildcats cannot take them lightly, especially how they’ve played over the last two games.

Kentucky is coming off a thrilling 82-74 win over Utah Valley, a game that saw the Wildcats use just seven scholarship players due to injury. That followed a shocking home loss to Evansville, as it’s become evident this team is still very much finding itself and fighting through some major growing pains.

Ahead of Friday’s matchup, assistant coach Joel Justus and select players met with the media to preview Cats vs. Mountaineers. Here is a recap of everything they had to say via UK Athletics:

Assistant Coach Joel Justus

On opponents playing well against Kentucky and if future opponents now have more hope …

“I think often times teams coming in, especially in November and December – and you might even be able to extend that throughout the season – teams really seem to play with a reckless abandon, really like they have nothing to lose. Oftentimes they’re the underdog or they’re the team that, you know, ‘Hey if we can come out and play great, we can win this game, and if we don’t play great we’re not going to win. So, let’s just try and go play great.’ I think that teams maybe can build on that. I know that if any of us were on the other bench, that’s probably how we would approach it. ‘Hey, this team played them close. That team played them close. We can do it if we stick to the plan and go do our own thing our way.’ But I think it comes down to the other guys on the other bench are putting together a game plan, and they’re good coaches as well and other players on other teams are good players. I think when you put together a schedule you’re planning to go and play teams that are going to give you a good look for March. I think that (Coach) Cal has always said that whenever we go into the postseason, that we’ve seen all different types of teams and different styles of play. I think that’s what we look for when we put together a schedule.”

On learning about the team through close games vs. blowouts …

“I think that we would all enjoy, maybe the last 10 minutes to be a little more relaxing. But I think when you, as a staff, can go back and point to winning time is something that Coach always talks about. You can figure out kind of who your team is, what guys look like. If you have a kid like Ashton Hagans who steps up and makes 12 free throws, that’s obviously going to help you down the road. You’re able to point to certain points in the game where guys made good plays, great offensive rebound like Johnny Juzang had the other night, or in some ways some mistakes that don’t lead to a loss. That’s always a positive thing when you’re talking about growth when you have individuals and a team that’s looking to get better. I think it’s always a good thing when you can play close games and win vs. not grow.”

On EJ Montgomery’s progress …

“Good. I think Geoff (Stanton) does a good job with our guys. Our habits that our guys develop here both on the court and off of the court is something that we’re proud of, and I think that when you see guys who do get injured, they carry the same kind of grit and determination into the training room. That’s always a positive thing. For us, we’re excited to get guys back sooner or later. [Siri on phone accidentally goes off and media starts laughing.]”

On when the team expects to get EJ Montgomery or Immanuel Quickley back into the lineup …

“You want to ask Siri? [Media laughs.] She might know better than I will. I don’t know.”

On how Dontaie Allen has looked …

“Good. He’s progressing in a good way. He’s a guy that’s come with a plan and I think we’re working with that. He’s going to add a little bit more to practice each and every week.”

On any timetable for Allen’s return …

“You can ask Siri that question too, probably.”

On how much of a challenge it is for guys to match the other teams’ “reckless abandon” approach game after game …

“I think early on it’s something that they to acquire. That’s a skill that these guys are starting to figure out. It’s something that Coach has addressed. I think he wants our team to play a little bit that way, like we have nothing to lose. So it’s something that we certainly have addressed with our guys and are trying to find out what kind of makes them more comfortable. It’s tough. It’s tough to play here. It’s tough to play in front of 20,000 folks that are challenging you and cheering for you. These guys, this is new for them too. It’s a new team. I think when you talk about the kind of obstacles that we’ve had to go through in practice with guys being injured, sometimes the games now are different than practice. Whereas typically you’re able to have your practices look like the games or emulate the games and sometimes be tougher, and I think that’s why our teams have been good here and great here because the practices sometimes have been tougher than the games. Until we can get back to that where we have a full complement and our full roster, I think we’re going to take some learning opportunities in the games.”

On guards getting into the lane and penetrating too deep and how they can fix that overnight …

“You can’t (fix it overnight). I think it’s something that we have to put them in situations in practice through drills. You have to show them. Some of it is positioning. Some of it is resting, which they’ve been able to do. The game is moving faster than it ever has. This is not unlike some of the issues that we’ve had defensively early on in November in the past where the ball moves quicker (than younger players are accustomed to). Players are quicker. Whether they play at Evansville or Michigan State or Utah Valley, these are good players. So I think guys are just learning how the game is played in college. Like I said, this is new. This is new for them. It’s new for everyone.”

On if he’s seen any improvements in 3-point shooting in practice …

“Yeah, I think it’s the same thing. I think teams are putting together game plans as well. I think everyone wants to look at us, that we’re the problem. I think sometimes the guys in coat and ties on the other bench are getting paid to put together a game plan as well, and sometimes that has a little bit to do with it with our lack of performance in that area. But I think you’ve got to look at the fact that we got to the free-throw line as many times as we have. Teams talk about not fouling. Well, they’re not doing a very good job of that if we’re getting to the free-throw line 30-plus times. I think you look at how we’re scoring the ball and we only made one 3-pointer and you score 80-something points. I think that’s a positive thing. I think we’re trying to look at what we’re doing well and some of the other things will change over time.”

On if any walk-ons have emerged in practice in a role where they can play like Brad Calipari did a couple years ago …

“Our team is comprised of guys we think can always potentially play. I think our better players are going to play more. But I think with what Brennan (Canada) is doing for us and now Ben (Jordan), they’re guys that are adding value to our team. It might not show up in the box score on game days, but they’re definitely adding value day in and day out.”

On this season’s fall signing class …

“You’re excited. I think it’s a group of guys that all wanted to be here. It’s a group of guys that are tremendous basketball players, but first and foremost they’re great people. They come from great families. It’s a very diverse group of young people that are extremely driven. I think anytime that you can collect a group of people that want to play with other really good, talented players, that’s going to fit Coach Cal’s dream class every single year. We try to put that together every single year, and this is one that’s off to a great start.”

On if effort was the biggest difference in the better rebounding last game …

“I think there was a great effort when you look back. That was obvious. Sometimes you make your own luck, you make your own kind of results when you talk about that. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way, and I think if you look back even at the Evansville game, there were some balls that just didn’t bounce our way. Part of that was we made our own shortcomings on the boards, and other times—how many times did a player under 6-foot-3 drive in, shoot a layup around two 6-8 guys and then somehow came up with the ball? I don’t think that was our effort. I just think it was sometimes a little bit of bad luck combined with some other things.”

On if they would like to add more to this current signing class …

“I think you always want to add the right people. I think that’s the first thing we always look for. It has the be the right mix, you know. I think sometimes that comes with roster management. I think sometimes it comes with time and what your team might look like next year, both with guys coming in and guys coming out. I think we’ll still continue to look and some of that is still to be determined.”

#33, Ben Jordan, R-So., F

On how much different basketball is compared to baseball …

“It’s different. They’re both passions of mine. I’ve loved baseball and basketball my whole life and to get to do it here is pretty awesome.”

On what it’s like going against the big guys in practice …

“It’s been challenging. I haven’t played in a couple of years, but I’m getting the hang of things a little bit. It’s been challenging but fun.”

On how he came to be on the team …

“I think that Coach (John Calipari) needed somebody to work out in practice. Just another big body to do workouts and stuff and practice with the team. I just came over one day and watched practice and he asked me, ‘Is this something you want to do?’ And I said yes and we went from there.”

On his daily schedule right now …

“Right now we’re not throwing so I’m not doing much (with baseball). We’re just lifting and conditioning, so I get a lot of that stuff over here. I’m not doing much with the baseball team right now. We have it set up once the time arises that I’ll have my time to do baseball and basketball both.”

On when it hit him that he was a Kentucky basketball player …

“I think the Blue-White Game. When I stepped out in Rupp (Arena), I was like, wow, this is real. I think it was around then.”

On what his role is on the team …

“I guard Nick (Richards) every day, trying to push him and make him a better player. I wouldn’t say the offense runs through me, but if I get the ball, I try to score. I’m just out there playing.”

On how the people in his hometown reacted to him being on the team …

“It’s a basketball town that I live in. I have played baseball here for two years and people thought it was cool, but I’m on the basketball team (now) and people are going nuts. I was like, this is my second sport, come on. They love it and it’s awesome.”

On how this experience will help him in baseball …

“I think it will make me mentally tougher. It’s a challenge. Going out in front of 20,000 people will make it easier when I go out on the mound. I’m not saying it’s going to make any pitches better, but I think overall it will help.”

On what UK head coach Nick Mingione said about him joining the basketball team …

“I think he was for it. I was done throwing and really, we were just going to condition and run and he said, ‘You get a chance to listen to a Hall of Fame coach and play for UK basketball. I don’t see why you wouldn’t.’ ”

#12, Keion Brooks Jr., Fr., F

On matching the intensity of underdog opponents …

“We just gotta get back to what we were doing in Madison Square Garden. Just going out and competing with the mentality that we have nothing to lose. Just got out playing hard and remember to have fun at the same time.”

On facing a team with nothing to lose …

“It makes the game interesting. Not afraid to take certain shots, not uptight. They’re just going out and playing. Those teams are always the most dangerous when they play with nothing to lose.”

On future opponents potentially believing they can beat UK because of the last couple games …

“It probably does give them greater belief, but it’s still hard to come in here and beat us. I would like to see a team come in here thinking they can beat us and see how that plays out.”

On being a role model for young fans …

“It’s nothing I necessarily asked for, but I know that comes with it. I have to carry myself in a way—I know little kids and other people are looking at me, so I have to carry myself in a way that’s being a good citizen, being a good person and always doing things the right way.”

On having only seven healthy full-time basketball scholarship players …

“It gets tough at times. A lot of players have to play more minutes than we usually play. We gotta play through some fatigue, but we have a next-man-up mentality. Coach and the team has the belief that everybody (who) steps up can go out there and make a positive impact on the game. Even though we’re playing with seven people, we feel like we can still get it done.”

On Kahlil Whitney popping his finger back in place …

“It was just extremely tough play. For him to get his finger popped out, pop it back in and go down there and grab a rebound, it just shows you how tough he is.”

On his progress and whether he’s happy with where he is …

“I’m not where I want to be. I always have the mentality that I got room to get better and there’s things I can learn and improve on throughout the game. The minutes that I have, I feel like I did a pretty decent job of trying to make an impact for the time I was out there. I’m going to practice and keep going up and talking to Coach Cal to see what I can do to help our team get better.”

On what he wants to improve …

“Everything overall. I’m a freshman getting used to the speed of the game, the physicality. Just being ready when the ball touches my hands, being able to read a defense better and on defense being able to help might the right rotations and have a better IQ overall of the game.”

On the team’s defense …

“I think to start off the season the first games the defense was tremendous. We came out with a fire and a passion to get stops. I feel like we kind of got complacent. We gotta get back to our defensive energy like what we were in Madison Square Garden, making it hard for opponents to score, taking them out of their stuff. We’re going to get back to it. It’s just a matter of focus and a matter of time.”