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John Calipari & Wildcats preview EKU

The Cats’ first regular-season game in Rupp.

John Calipari Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are getting set for their home opener as EKU visits Rupp Arena on Friday.

Following a win over No. 1 Michigan State on Tuesday, the Wildcats are now beginning an eight-game home stand that starts with the Colonels out of the OVC.

Ahead of the game, head coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to preview Friday’s matchup. Here is a recap of everything they had to say via UK Athletics.

John Calipari

On how significant it was that Nick Richards was able to come off the ankle injury and be effective vs. Michigan State …

“Oh absolutely. He was unbelievable. Can I just tell you why I’m so happy? He really helped himself. Because he’s in the best shape of his life, he has confidence. He built his own confidence. If you’re not in shape and you’re getting pushed and you’re late, you will have no confidence. You will miss a couple shots, your head will go down and you’re done. He’s got two things: Every time on offense and defense, outrun the ball. Wherever it is, outrun it. You ready for this? And play every shot, both on offense and defense, as though it’s going to be missed. And then we will watch him in the NBA be the next guy to go off the charts, if I told you just those two things – and I’ve been wrong before, 1978 – the only way you can do what I just said is being in great condition, and he is for the first time in his life.”

On what his reaction was when Richards chased Cassius Winston off a screen and forced a turnover …

“He was great. I mean, when I watched it, he came up and moved, got back to his own man and the people behind scrambled. You know what’s crazy with this? Everybody is talking about how we defended. You all know we do no defense in the summer. None. We are not in a stance .We are not working on pick-and-roll. We are doing no defense. We are not doing any defense until we do our first practice. Now, we’re teaching the dribble-drive, which means they have to be able to stay in front of somebody. But nothing else. And the reason is that our season is too long. Do you really want to play defense for 10 months? Who wants to do that? It’s bad enough that have to do it for six months. And so his veteran mentality helped him. But he was good. He was really good. He faded away on some jump hooks. Think about if he made like three or four of those, or got fouled and goes back to the line. People would be like, ‘Who’s better than him?’ But he’s coming off that injury and he’s still feeling his way through. But proud of him.”

On Nate Sestina being considered a player/coach because of his age, experience and leadership …

“He can coach. He can coach the team. I won’t go as long as they pay me. I’m good. I’ll tell you what was crazy: On the bench, Riley (Welch) was all into it. Talking screens. And I’m going to talk them a little bit about it today. ‘You’re on the bench. What are you cool?’ Well, Riley was into it. Like, talking as a basketball player. We try to have X amount of what we call kills, which are three stops in the row. If you have three stops in a row, that is one kill, so it’s two stops, and there you got Riley, and when you had Nate on the bench, you had two of them, ‘That’s two stops. We get one more we got a kill. One more we got a kill.’ That’s what you want on your bench and your team. But, Nate’s been good. I called the coaches at Bucknell and thanked them and said you did a great job with this kid (Sestina). Really did. And they said after their game with Fairfield, they were on a bus watching our game and when he made that 3 (to put UK up 13 vs. Michigan State), the bus had to pull over because they were going absolutely bonkers on the bus. Which that’s the kind of stuff which makes this great. You guys haven’t been in practice, but you know what’s going on anyway, you would have seen that Tyrese (Maxey) has not done that, what he did up there, not one day in practice, not one day. As a matter of fact, I’ve been all over him. If you ask who I’ve been the toughest on, they will tell you him and in second place is Kahlil (Whitney), but he’s the one. But part of it is, he has to go against Ashton (Hagans). My son and I were talking today and he said, he was talking about Ashton, he said “there is on one like him, you don’t realize until you play against him. You can’t even make a bounce.” Ask Johnny Juzang, when that kid switches on Johnny, Johnny says “here you take it”. And so he has to go against Ashton and then started driving like holy cow I can drive, like I can get a shot off, like that deep one he had, Ashton would have been to where his head would have been hitting the kid in the chin. So it’s been a great thing and it has been a great thing for Ashton playing against somebody that good.”

On having a transfer (Nate Sestina) from a mid-major school tell his teammates what to expect when playing against other mid-major schools for the next few weeks …

“I don’t know if that will be the case. But look, we’re coming off a game where people who watched it are saying, ‘Did you see their energy? Did you see their spirit? Did you see how hard they play?’ Well, just be that team. We gotta do the same this game. Now, this is going to be a hard game because this team is pressing for 40 minutes. They’re gonna scramble and do stuff that this team has not seen. When we played Kentucky State, just so you know, they were supposed to play man because we don’t work on zone, and they came out in a 2-3 zone for 40 minutes. And if you think we looked confused, we were confused. Because we had not worked on zone, so we talked them through zone offense. Can you imagine that? That’s what we had to do. Now yesterday was more of a film day, so today I’ve gotta work on how we’re gonna attack the press, and I’ve got young guys. So, this will be a good game for us. They’ve got some size. You know, the big guy who transferred in, I think from NC State (Darius Hicks) I believe it was, he’s good. I watched him. Their guards play. They shoot 3s. So this is a good one for us.

On if the team will be focused for this Friday’s game …

“Don’t know. I have no idea. When you’re coaching young guys, you don’t know. One of the things that we have to do is we have to continue to figure out offensively how do we play. How do we get everybody involved in how we play? Like when someone wants to do more – ‘I can do more’ – my comment to them is, ‘We didn’t score one basket on an offensive rebound. How about do more of that? Go get a couple of those.’ Doing more for some of these guys means that we’re gonna have to create a little bit for them because they’re not used to playing random. When you’re a freshman, everything was run to you. You took every shot. Every play was to you in high school. Now you’re here and we’re trying to play random. Why am I trying to teach them random basketball? It’s where the game’s going, where it’s position-less, drive the basketball. The game is random now. Well, when you have 17- and 18-year olds, they’re not used to playing random. And you watch them and you say, ‘He’s a little lost out there.’ And that’s because he is. He’s not used to being ready to make a play before he catches the ball. He’s not seeing what’s there before he catches it. A high school player catches the ball, and then says, ‘What do I have?’ It is too late. So, it’s gonna be till January or February till we can play as random as we want to play.”

On the mindset and mentality of Ashton Hagans picking up on defense after Tyrese Maxey’s big shot …

“Here’s the thing: I told them yesterday – because this is what happens when you’re coaching a team and they’re all talented kids – all of the clutter around them. Like I told them the night before the game and I told them before the game, ‘If anybody gets it going, we’re riding them.’ If you know me, if you’ve followed me, you know that’s how I am. If someone gets it going, they’re going to have the ball in their hands and the rest of you’ve got to accept it. Well, who was it in this game? And I told Ashton, ‘He was playing so good I pushed you to the wing. What’s the big deal? We’ve got 40 games.’ But, there will be the comment that, ‘Well, if he did so and so, why didn’t he play?’ Because you’re not him. That’s why. But he’s not you. I pointed to Immanuel (Quickley) and Ashton yesterday and said, ‘They may be the same size. They may look the same. They are totally two different players, and what this kid can do, maybe you can’t do, but he can’t do what you do. That’s the great thing about how we do this here. You come and be yourself. Unless, ‘Well, if you were doing what he was doing. If I was doing what I was doing, and he was doing.’ That’s one of those, the maturity of this and the understanding. We’ve got a great--I told them yesterday, ‘I love walking into practice every day.’ We’ve got great kids. They’re still somewhat fragile, trying to figure out who they are. ‘I want to do more.’ I know, you had three turnovers doing more. Probably need to do less. [Media laughs.] This is all part of the process of teaching. And then there’s got to be trust. I told them, ‘We coach every guy on this team like they’re starters. Everyone is coached like a starter. No one is being held back. We are trying to push you to be special. We can’t get in shape for you. We can’t be tough for you. We can put you in situations for you to make the plays that we’re showing. But if you’ve got to cross twice, spin and go and then lose the ball, you’re not playing the way we want you to play. I want you to score but score like this. It’s more efficient. It’s where you’re going to have to take things.’ That’s the process of what we go through.”

On what was the moment where he knew he had to put the ball in Maxey’s hands …

“I can’t remember, but you won’t believe this: I’m just watching the game, and like, ‘Holy geez, did you see that? Put it in his hands again. Let’s go side pick-and-roll. Let’s see what he’ll do. Let’s put him in a fist-five and see what he’ll do.’ You see it and you go. It’s like Malik Monk running down the court and making a 3 and me running in front, ‘Drive it, drive it.’ Make the 3. ‘Good shot. Way to hit that thing, kid.’ I mean, you just—you’re playing it. If we can get Nick in the post and he scores three or four, guess what? We’re throwing it to him 10 straight times. I mean, it doesn’t matter who it is. If you’re a wing, we’re throwing it to you. If you’ve got an advantage and you can make plays. But again, we’re still figuring out offensively. I’m going to do some different things today to try and help a couple guys. I just don’t want this to be too structured offensively. And then, what I saw defensively for this early – this is my 11th year – I’m not sure if there’s a couple of teams that were better defensively at this point than we were that game. I don’t. I mean, do you remember where we were playing teams and Transy’s right there with us. If we’re going to be defensive, maybe not this team. Maybe he should play zone.’ Coach (Joe B.) Hall is in practice telling me, ‘I’m telling you, the 1-3-1. Listen to me.’ ”

On Immanuel Quickley wearing a brace on his arm on his Instagram …

“He’s got to shoot it less. He just keeps shooting it. Your wrist starts hurting. [Media laughs.]”

#3, Tyrese Maxey, Fr., G

On how many people he heard from after the game and whether anyone surprised him …

“I heard from some people, but I really keep my circle tight so I talked to my family and my friends and that’s about it.”

On whether it will be hard to shift focus to Eastern Kentucky …

“No, sir. We want to be great. We want to be one of the best teams in the country and I feel like we’re going to keep putting in work and not stop practicing and practice really hard.”

On what he did after his big debut …

“Come back home, go to sleep, go to class the next morning and get back in the gym. Start grinding again.”

On what he wants to work on …

“Individually I just feel like I want to get better. I always want to take the time of the day to get better. One percent better every day my dad always told me, and I feel like I need to get better with my shot – just more consistent – and coming off ball screens and making better plays for my teammates.”

On how much the win built their confidence …

“Honestly, I feel like our confidence level was high going into the game. I feel like we prepared. We did all the conditioning and hard work during the offseason and the preseason, and I feel like we wanted to go out there and show them why the work was needed.”

On how much facing Ashton Hagans in practice helps him …

“Like (Coach Cal) said, he’s right. I feel like Ashton is the best defender in the country and I feel like he’s made me a lot better. I feel like I’ve made him a lot better as far as just helping him. I feel like he can guard anybody and him guarding me I can go at anybody. It just makes us better and makes practice a lot more competitive.”

On playing alongside Hagans and Immanuel Quickley …

“I feel like it was good. Coach Cal trusts all three of us with the ball in our hands and I feel like it gives us three playmakers to help us feed off each other and help the bigs, whoever is in the game at the time.”

On being eager to play again …

“We have a bunch of guys that just love playing basketball. It doesn’t matter who we play, we always want to play again and have a lot of fun again and experience that same feeling.”

On Coach Cal’s feedback about Tuesday …

“He really talked about how he was proud of us, our effort. He was proud of our effort and how we never really stopped playing. We always were out there competing and doing what he asked.”

On what Coach Cal challenged them to improve …

“As a coach, you always find ways that we can get better. He had those type of things. Certain defensive breakdowns, helping our offense get into scoring areas for our bigs and stuff like that.”

On Nick Richards’ contributions …

“It shows that he was resilient and he really wanted to win. His ankle was probably hurting, but I felt like he was good enough to go and he did what he was supposed to do. That goes for all the bigs. Keion (Brooks Jr.), EJ (Montgomery), Nate (Sestina), they all did really well at the pick-and-roll with Cassius (Winston) and they really helped us succeed.”

On Hagans showing toughness …

“He also showed resilience. He said he was going to lock (Winston) up and he said he was going to do what he normally does and I knew he was going to do it. He always says that he feels he’s the best defensive player in the country and I do too. We all believe in him. We all know what he can do.”

#1, Nate Sestina, Gr., F

On his confidence level against Michigan State …

“I felt pretty confident. I felt like I had good energy the whole game. Got to be better with rebounding and hitting guys on the box outs. I want to be more physical, but I feel pretty good leaving the game.”

On how he thought his play at Bucknell would translate to Kentucky …

“I have a good foundation. I’ve had it for four years. Coaches at Bucknell definitely did a good job of teaching me the right things and making sure that I do all of the right things. Just being here, it’s just really emphasized rebounding and going after balls, setting good screens, getting guys open, so I think the translation kind of showed. I just have to be better about going after rebounds and things like that.”

On why he thought he didn’t go after rebounding as much as he would have liked to …

“My point of emphasis for myself throughout the games, I need to make sure that I hit people, and I sometimes just got lost, legs were a little bit tired, but I just think it was more of an energy thing.”

On the emotion he plays with during games …

“I’m an emotional kid when I play. I have a lot of energy. I think the shot that I hit at the top of the key just kind of, I got to show that a little bit. They called a timeout, we were on a run, and it was just kind of that fork in them, and they were done. I play with a lot of emotion all of the time.”

On being used to being the trailer on breaks …

“I did that for four years at Bucknell. It’s like breathing for me right now, so I just got to make sure I hit it every time.”

On Tuesday’s game being a confidence builder for such a young team …

“I mean, it definitely did, especially with Tyrese (Maxey). His confidence should be through the roof. The dude is absurd. He’s a big-time player, and I think everybody got to see that. He’s a big-time shot-maker, and for us as a team, everybody was worried about our toughness. I think them coming on that run and being down two and us finishing the game out just shows how mentally tough we are that we’re able to shut a team down and continue to play defense the way we did for 40 minutes.”