There have been many complaints in recent weeks that relate to the lack of consistency from fans showing up to Kentucky’s non-conference games to start the season.
However, can one really blame the Big Blue Nation for not wanting to watch their team regularly come out and struggle against severely less-talented teams? There’s not a right or wrong answer, but there is something to say about the Wildcats’ and their surprising early-season struggles following a dominant win over Michigan State to start their 2019 slate.
As the then No.1 team, Kentucky lost to Evansville last Tuesday and has since struggled terribly against the likes of Utah Valley and Mount St. Mary's. Early on Friday night, Kentucky even fell behind to Mount St. Mary's before making a late run in the first half to take a slight lead at the 20-minute mark.
During the second half, though, Kentucky finally seemed to realize that defense leads to offense. The Wildcats’ tightened up their defense and enjoyed easier buckets in transition, building a 23-point lead midway through the second half. Calipari’s team cruised along to the final buzzer, winning via a 82-62 decision. Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards led the way by combining for 35 points while Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey also reached double digits.
Here’s what head coach John Calipari and some of his Wildcats’ had to say following the game.
Q. What were you telling your guys at half?
JOHN CALIPARI: Pick’n roll. We had to put it on tape, show them, talk them through it, say, This is what you have to be doing. Why are you backing away? Why are the bigs coming up late? Why are you not talking?
Again, we’re a team that’s trying to work all kinds of stuff. So, they came out in the second half and played it. That was the one thing that hurt us in the first half, that right there. We kind of took that away from them in the second half. They had a couple layups late, but we were better.
Q. How long have EJ and Immanuel been back? Been practicing very long?
JOHN CALIPARI: EJ practiced a little bit in the half court. Immanuel has been back a day. I told them we got to get through this weekend, then we got one game a week for six weeks. That’s when we start camp, when we’re doing some stuff in the mornings. We’ll catch up.
I think they all showed some good signs. Tyrese had five assists. That’s what I’m demanding of him. He’s capable of getting 10, but I’m demanding it of him.
I think Ashton still is a little bit undisciplined both offensively and defensively. He’s got to tighten it up.
Again, we only get six offensive rebounds. C’mon. It’s not like we made every shot. We shot over 50%, but there’s still 25 rebounds and you get six. That’s not acceptable. It’s just not.
I’m telling them, Whoever in this room wants to play more, offensive rebound. I’m going to leave you in the game.
Well, that’s rough. It’s hard. Can I just shoot some threes?
Q. Talk about Khalil, the message you’re trying to get to him, how he’s receptive to you?
JOHN CALIPARI: He’s just got to figure stuff out. Here is what I told all these guys. What got you here, you can’t play that way here. You’re talking about older players, more structure, the game is way faster, guys are in way better shape. The things you got away with in high school, you’re going to be uncomfortable for a while because it’s stuff you’ve never had to do.
He’s capable of being that defender and that rebounder. You saw some offense today, things that he’s capable of doing. But we also had 20 assists, which is why he and Keion and other guys had shots and plays. We finally passed the ball to each other.
The reason, it’s contagious. If you don’t pass it when you get it, I’m not passing it. Look, five guys out there playing for themselves. Today you saw a team that passed the ball and created shots for each other.
It’s like we got to show it. Then we back up a little bit and we hadn’t worked on pick’n roll defense in the first half. How did that look? Got to talk about that.
Our zone offense. You’re trying to get us to go man and pass the ball. There’s a lot of stuff that we’re throwing at these kids.
But Immanuel made shots. Great to have him back. The guy that made the difference is EJ. You would have never known he was not playing for a while. I mean, not having him really affects us. Having him, when he’s playing, he’s a difference maker.
Q. You’ve talked about offensive rebounding several times. What makes that difficult for these guys to go after?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, here is what happens. Your mentality has to be every shot that we take, the three, four and the five, sometimes the two, off guard, this is a miss. You got to train yourself every shot we take offensively is a miss, I’m going to go get it.
When you go get it, that’s three more steps you got to run to go back on defense, so it’s a little easier just to, I can’t get that, I’ll be at the top of the key and start running so I got a five-step lead on this guy. If he’s right next to me and he runs, I got to sprint. If they get it, I turn and fly.
We’re working on it. We’re doing stuff. Obviously, it’s not taking hold. I’m telling you, if I get a guy that will offensive rebound, he’s staying in the game. If anybody wants so-and-so to play more, he’s given you the answers. He’s giving you an A, go rebound offensively. That means do not accept being blocked out, fight for every ball, and if you don’t get it sprint back.
How about if we had three guys doing that, which some of my teams were that way? We were getting 17, 18, 19 offensive rebounds, which gives you four or five or six easy baskets. Which means if you play how we play, it’s hard to beat us. That’s tough, mentally stronger, experienced kids.
Q. Why do sometimes teams not pass the ball?
JOHN CALIPARI: Because they’re concerned about how they’re playing. They’re all trying to figure out what they are. Immanuel is even trying to figure out with my mindset who am I now. Got to get him to pass. Tyrese went crazy against Michigan State shooting every ball. They all went in. Kind of fool’s gold. How am I going to play to create shots for my teammates?
You have other guys, if they’re not getting the ball because people aren’t passing, when they get it, they shoot it. They take a tough shot, turn it over. I only got two chances, what do you want?
We’re not a team yet. But today we made strides. We made some strides defensively, too.
Q. Can you talk about Nick Richards’ play this season?
JOHN CALIPARI: Nick is capable. He gets tired. I played him 32 minutes. But he gets tired. He’s not the same guy. But when he’s alert and active, whew. His minutes should be about 28 minutes a game. Those extra four, he fouls at half court, exhausted, just grab the guy. All that kind of stuff, late to guard his man in the post, leaves his feet. All that stuff happens in those extra four or five minutes. Short of that...
I don’t know if you remember the play in front of their bench. The guy went down the sideline, he showed hard. The guy went up the middle on the dribble. Wasn’t his man. A guy drove baseline and he blocked it, all in one play. It shows you can do that, but not when you’re mentally exhausted. You need to come out.
We got the guys. We got enough guys. We’re not playing with seven like we did last game.
Q. Is the pick’n pop with Nick, is that a new thing for him?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah. Well, it’s not a new thing. When he’s in practice, everything we’re doing, he’s leading us in shooting, then he’s going to shoot. I’d like to get more shots. Make more shots and then you’ll get more shots. Not going one for nine and say, Let me shoot more.
He missed a shot at the elbow. We ran a play for him. Instead of shooting the ball, again, it shows where he still is right now, he tried to drive it, turn it over. What are you doing? That’s for you to shoot. We ran it again, he made it. Why didn’t you shoot the last one? I missed the last one, I was kind of afraid to shoot. What?
We don’t have amnesia yet. We don’t move on to the next play. I keep telling the guys, shoot the ball straight. I don’t care if you make it or miss it, shoot it straight. Part of the reason we can’t rebound, when you miss a ball left to right hard, no chance of going in, it doesn’t bounce the way you can rebound. It comes off like a bullet. Ain’t offensive rebounding that, my man. Shoot the ball straight. You can’t miss left or right. You can miss, you’re not going to make every shot, just shoot it straight.
Q. This is a little off subject.
JOHN CALIPARI: Really. Surprised. Never heard you off subject (laughter).
Q. It is basketball. Next week, Thanksgiving, the Maui Invitational, you’re reluctant, but what is your reluctance about Kentucky playing in that?
JOHN CALIPARI: It’s just a long way. I mean, we don’t need to play in it. Again, this is why we need fans in this building cheering these kids on. We played Michigan State. We got other games coming up. We always have a young team. You can’t play five top 10 games in your first seven games.
Okay, now we get totally rattled. Now you got a team of young guys that are 1-5. It would be okay here in Kentucky to be 1-5, wouldn’t have a problem. Everybody would be fine. The games pass me by, everything else.
I got young guys. We schedule the way the kids benefit. I know fans want me to schedule for fans. I schedule for the kids. At the end of the day we still have one of the best schedules in the country every year. Just can’t do it up front. You can’t.
These kids are trying to figure themselves out. You’re looking and saying, What about Keion, Khalil? Tyrese played, but not yet. They’re fragile, not sure yet.
We’re struggling against the teams we’re playing. You put us in that kind of event, traveling 12 hours, just not good for us.
Q. What prompted you today to have the message encouraging fans to come to games? Did you think that would be something you’d ever have to do here?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, I don’t need to do it. But I want the fans to understand the part they play for these kids. When they walk in this arena, these fans are for them, even when they’re struggle, it’s a big deal to help me build this team up. You help me.
The tickets are sold. I mean, they’re sold. That’s not the issue. The issue around the country, not here, but around the country, getting students to games, then getting ticketholders to make sure someone is sitting in their seat. Not just a Kentucky issue, it’s everywhere.
You think if it’s a little issue here, it’s a huge issue in other places. All I’m saying is we got the greatest fans. What if a player comes in here, an opponent, gets a 50-point game or 40-point game, he’s walking off the court? He’ll get a standing O from our fans. We got the greatest fans.
Everybody wants to play here. There’s no liquor, people spitting on people, throwing things, cussing, that doesn’t happen here. This is an unbelievable crowd. We need them here building up our kids because it’s still going to take some time.
We showed signs in the second half. We’re not there. I mean, we may be two months away with this team, I don’t know.
#0 Ashton Hagans, Guard
On the team’s mentality during the 18-3 run in the second half ...
”Just stick together. When we went in at halftime and was watching the film, they showed us what we needed to work on. We just went out there and just started talking more and all the guys were talking. The rotation was there and that was just that.”
On the return of Montgomery and Quickley ...
”It was really big for EJ (Montgomery) to be back and do what he did, that was really big and Quickley the same thing, knocking down some big shots. Both of them were rebounding and that is what we are going to need for the team to be at our best. They came in and gave us their all.”
On the team’s flow in the second half ...
”You know, it just gets to the point where everyone is finding their role. So, Cal is just dialing that in, and everyone is finding their role. We are going to be that team. But right now, like I said, just trying to fit in. Everyone just doing what they can do to help this team out on defense.”
#2 Kahlil Whitney, Forward
On the strides the team made tonight …
“I feel like we made great strides defensively, just knowing their personnel and trying to stop what they threw at us. Fighting over ball screens, being help-side and talking, I feel like communication is a big key for us and we want to really be special and communicate more, it’s a process and we will get there.”
On the upside of having nine available players versus seven available players …
“It was a lot better for us, we weren’t dying out there, it was great, we had great minutes from Quick (Immanuel Quickley) of the bench, he made like three three-pointers. EJ (Montgomery) came off the bench and had some great minutes, made some shots, so were just getting there and getting back together.”
On the crowd getting fired up in the second half tonight after the team’s 12-0 run …
“I was on the bench and I saw it, I kind of looked up at the jumbotron and I saw you had to make three three’s for the chicken sandwich… but we had no clue, we just had to come out and play.”
On Coach Calipari’s comments that playing time stems off offensive rebounds …
“It starts in practice, where we do all of the boxout drills and defensive drills, it’s something we have to get better at, and we will get better at it.”
On Immanuel Quickley’s boost to the overall play of the team …
“Immanuel is an electric scorer, he can shoot the ball, he can finish, like I said he played great minutes off the bench and made a lot of three-pointers.”
#23 EJ Montgomery, Forward
On first game back …
“Just super happy to be back out there. I mean just sitting back watching from the bench was no fun, so I was glad to get on the floor with my guys again. It was the plan to get back on the court tonight, focusing on Friday and getting rehab and treatment and things like that. I missed three games which felt like a long time, so I was just happy to play with my guys and get a win tonight.”
On being a difference maker …
“I don’t know if they really needed me but I’m somewhat of a help. I just try to get it in, play with energy and just help my team win. I just go out there and do what I can, rebound, play defense and just try to be that leader on the floor.”
On offensive rebounding …
“I mean shots are going long. When we crash in the board it’s going over our heads, but we just have to fight for it. But Cal stresses that in practice though, think that every shot is a miss so we can get our rebounds up and just go in there and attack. He told us that people don’t try to get rebounds because it’s easier to just run back down the floor but we’re working on that every day and I can definitely help in that area. I’m quick, I mean quicker than most bigs so I can get around them and go get the board.”
Now, here are the postgame notes via UK Athletics:
Team Records and Series Notes
- Kentucky moves to is 4-1 on the season. Mount St. Mary’s is 1-5.
- Kentucky leads the series 2-0.
- Tonight’s game was the second in the BBN Showcase multi-team event. The upcoming games vs. Lamar and UAB also are a part of the event.
- Next up: Kentucky continues its eight-game homestand Sunday vs. Lamar. That game will tip at 6 p.m. and be televised on SEC Network.
- The 20,351 attendance is the highest of the season.
- Ashton Hagans had 16 points, a career-high-tying seven rebounds and a season-high seven assists.
- He made all six foul shots, making him 18 of 18 at the charity stripe in the last two games. He’s 25 of 28 on the season.
- UK is 7-0 in Hagans’ career when he scores at least 14 points.
- Nick Richards tallied 19 points and has had at least that many in three of the five games this season. He added six rebounds and blocked three shots.
- Returning after a one-game injury absence, Immanuel Quickley tallied 13 points and has scored double figures in all four games he’s played this season.
- He scored in double figures in six games last season.
- He tied a career high with three 3-pointers.
- He has hit a 3-pointer in every game he’s played in this season.
- Tyrese Maxey scored 11 points, reaching double figures for the fourth time this season, and had a season-high five assists.
- Having missed the last three games with a right ankle injury, EJ Montgomery played 15 minutes and contributed seven points and six rebounds.
- UK was plus-29 – the best mark on the team – with Montgomery on the court, and that was in just 15 minutes of play.
- Calipari is now 309-72 at UK.
- He has a 754-212 all-time on-court record.
- UK is 249-41 vs. Associated Press unranked competition under Calipari, including 150-5 at home.
- Kentucky held Mount St. Mary’s to 62 points.
- UK is 176-7 under Calipari when the opponent scores 63 or less.
- The Wildcats are 3-0 this season when the opponent scores 63 or less.
- UK limited Mount St. Mary’s to 36.1% shooting.
- The Wildcats are 190-17 under Calipari when the opponent shoots 40% or less.
- UK is 3-1 this season.
- Kentucky led by as many as 25 points in the game.
- UK is 264-6 under Calipari when leading by at least 10 points during the game.
- UK shot 54.5% from the field tonight, the second game this season shooting 50% or better.
- Kentucky made six 3-pointers, tying the season high, and 40% from long range is a season best.
- UK made 88.9% at the free throw line (16 of 18), the third straight game making at least 80%.
- The Wildcats are shooting 80.1% on the season.
- Kentucky dished a season-high 20 assists while committing a season-low 12 turnovers, the first positive assist-to-TO ratio of the season.
In the First Half
- The starting lineup consisted of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney, Nate Sestina and Nick Richards for the second straight game.
- Playing for the first time since the season opener, EJ Montgomery was the first sub.
- The next substitute was Immanuel Quickley, meaning UK had nine scholarship players available for the first time since the opener vs. MIchigan State.
- Kentucky opened the game with consecutive dunks by Richards and the Wildcats’ next basket was a dunk by Whitney.
- Trailing 17-11, Mount St. Mary’s made a 7-0 run to get its first lead of the game.
- UK used a 6-0 run to reclaim the lead at 25-22 and the Wildcats led at halftime 39-34.
- Kentucky made all 10 of its foul shots in the first half.
In the Second Half
- UK opened the second half with Hagans, Maxey, Keion Brooks Jr., Montgomery and Richards.
- Kentucky had a 26-7 spurt to begin the second stanza, making 10 of the first 11 shots, including four 3-pointers. That gave the Wildcats a 65-41 lead.
- Kentucky’s largest lead was 25 points at 69-44.
- MSM got within 73-58 with 5:24 to play but a 7-0 run ended hopes of a Mountaineers comeback.