The No. 8 Wildcats don’t necessarily have many “dominant” wins this season, but they had won their previous five games by double digits.
That was the case again Saturday, as Kentucky overcame a so-so offensive game and used their defense to dismantle Georgia Tech, winning 67-53 to improve to 8-1.
Leading the way for the Wildcats was Ashton Hagans, going for 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. The team ultimately added more fuel to the fire of momentum they’re searching for ahead of their match up with Ohio State next weekend at the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas, though they’ll get a nice challenge in Utah on Wednesday, also in Vegas.
Here’s what head coach John Calipari and select players had to say following the team’s defeat of Georgia Tech via UK Athletics:
Q. What’s the biggest difference between Ashton Hagans this year and Hagans last year?
COACH CALIPARI: He knows what to expect. He has no anxiety about what he’s doing. He knows coming into the game. He knows game planning. He’ll watch tape.
He’s so far advanced. And again, there may be better point guards out there. I’d have to watch closely. I mean, the way he is playing -- that he’s starting to master his skills. Now, he still gets sloppy. He’ll get sloppy both on defense and offense. But it’s, sometimes I think he gets bored so then he has to try something new.
But I’m proud of him. And I like the three guards. It was nice to see Tyrese (Maxey) go 0-for-9. Or did he go 6-for-10? No, that was Brad (Calipari) that went 6-for-10 and got 20 today. I’m sorry. (Laughter.)
Q. Seems like Keion (Brooks Jr.) is finally starting to get --
COACH CALIPARI: He’s fighting. Fight.
Q. Through some energy.
COACH CALIPARI: Fight. You’re saying energy. Like fight.
Q. How does it change you when he plays?
COACH CALIPARI: He’s a skilled basketball player. I even saw him stay in front of people where we were getting beat on the dribble -- No. 5 (Moses Wright) beat us on the dribble with everybody else who played him, and he didn’t get around Keion (Brooks Jr.). I was proud of him.
But, look, at the end of the day, we need to get Nate (Sestina) back. Nick (Richards) has reverted, he reverted in practice. And what he did was he got lazy with catches. Did you see him fumble passes in the post today? He got lazy with catches. He started rebounding with one. Wasn’t playing with the energy that he had been playing with. And so, this is what you get, this kind of game.
I told him it was coming. Maybe I jinxed him, but I told him, you play how you train. And so, he and EJ, we need them both. And it’s not -- if they score, great. They can score. But they’ve got to fight and rebound and block shots and be active and talk.
This stuff is hard here. It’s easier to just say let me shoot more balls. Well, it’s not how this stuff works. It’s not how you elevate your game. But Keion (Brooks Jr.) did today.
Q. How do you think the team is playing defensively?
COACH CALIPARI: I’ll have to watch the tape, but in the second half I thought we did some good stuff. First half, I think at one point they were shooting 60 percent, 65, to start the game. But every team comes in here, high energy, flying around, nothing to lose. The rim’s big.
And then our job is to keep at it, keep at it, keep at it. And now all of a sudden it catches up. That’s kind of what happened -- if you noticed, we changed how we warmed up at halftime.
What was happening is the start of our games and even the second quarter of our games, the start of the second half, everything was dipping. So, then it’s, like, what in the world is that about? And so, we tried a different warm-up today.
We went into -- and they all knew. The players knew, we warmed up a little different. I think it helped us with our start. But it ended up being 6-6, even though we got the thing to 12. And then all of a sudden you look around and it’s 6-6.
Q. Are you seeing the strides out of this team that you want to see this time of year?
COACH CALIPARI: Yeah, I guess. It’s hard. I think Josh (Pastner), the job he’s doing, they’re playing zone. They’re mixing up their defense. It’s hard to go 40 minutes against a zone. It just is.
And especially when you’re a team that’s not going to try to shoot 35 3s. So, the teams that have hurt them shot 30, 35 3s and made 20, 15, eight. We don’t play that way. Do I want to shoot more 3s? Yeah. I thought Immanuel (Quickley) passed up a couple and drove and ended up getting in trouble when he had a better shot on the first catch.
I thought Kahlil (Whitney) had a 3 in the far corner away from our bench, too. And he drives into really nothing and he had to pass it. I’d rather him shoot the ball.
But the biggest -- I’m telling you, folks, there’s two things, fight and finish. How we finish games is going to be vital because we’re going to be in a bunch of close games. We are. We’re not going to be 25 points better than people.
And as a matter of fact, we’re going to play some people coming up who may be 20 points better than us. Then it’s, like, okay, do we have any fight in us to even this stuff out, because that’s what it’s going to be. And then we’ve got to be a better team to make sure we can survive.
Q. (Tyrese) Maxey didn’t make a shot, yet he had rebounds, he had assists. What do you think about just the way he stayed competitive and in the game despite not making --
COACH CALIPARI: Again, he’s just learning and, again, I keep telling him, you cannot avoid contact and try to flip balls. You’re not playing St. Aloysius anymore. These dudes, when you go like that, they block it. And if you go like that, the official’s not going to call a foul. He’s not.
If you go into him like he did the two times he went into them, they will call that a foul. He’s never played that way. Everything is a throw and a flip. They give him no call. So, we’ve been all over it, and he’s responded.
He’ll text me, keep coaching me, man. Keep coaching me. And believe me, I’m, like, people that have watched us in practice know I’m just holding him to a high standard and holding him accountable.
Q. When you were talking about Nick (Richards), when you look at his line today -- 12 points, four rebounds, four blocks, 5-for-6 -- in the first two years you probably would have been in here jumping up and down if he gave you that kind of line. What is he not doing exactly that you think he’ll do better and you just raised the bar than much for him?
COACH CALIPARI: I want him to be the best big man in the country. You know why? Because I truly believe he’s capable of it. Who’s his size with his athleticism? But if you don’t fight -- if there’s talent but you don’t fight and the other team is a better team, they play together better, you’re losing. I don’t care how talented you are.
If you’ll fight and play on a team that plays together, he could be the best big man in the country. I’ve had people say why didn’t he get more rebounds? Why doesn’t he get more? Well, again, shot goes up, he runs versus I create contact. Shot goes up, I reach with one, I never bring him in, versus I’m going after every ball with two.
Holding him accountable, he reverted last week. I love him. He’s going to be fine.
But, look, the only way these kids get better, they have to fail. They have to have adversity thrown at them. It’s the only way you grow.
Now, then you evaluate yourself, self-evaluation, and you’re honest or, folks, you’re delusional. The delusional guy says if you let me shoot more, I’ll be better, I’ll be fine. You’re being delusional. This has nothing to do with your shots. As a matter of fact, most of these guys I’m telling them to shoot more.
Q. I know you talked about what you saw from Hagans, but with Immanuel Quickley, how impressed were you to see him have another career high in scoring?
COACH CALIPARI: No, how did you guys -- did you know I started three guards? Did you guys even notice that? Eric (Lindsey) told you? (Laughter.)
So, I went with that lineup. Now, the problem is it may push Johnny (Juzang) and Kahlil (Whitney) a little bit back and I don’t want to do that, which is why I wasn’t starting him early. But if those three deserve to play together, it is what it is. What, am I going to cheat one of those guys because I’m trying to get -- no, like, Coach (John) Wooden called me in 2010. He was talking about my team. I called him. And I said, Coach, are you watching my team? And he said, yeah. Tell me what you think. We’re not an execution team. This is my 2010 team.
He said, you’re not an execution team because you try to play nine guys. I played six. And you either earn the right to play in practice or you didn’t play. And the other guy did. That was from Coach (John) Wooden. That’s what he said to me. You’re playing nine. You’re never really going to be a great team.
And he said, but times have changed, and I understand why you’re doing it. You’re trying to bring everybody along. Kids transfer. They didn’t with us. They were there. I had guys had to sit three years, in their fourth year become an NBA player. It’s changed. And he’s right.
The best teams I’ve coached I’ve played five and six guys. This team I’m hoping I can play nine.
Q. Would you talk about the fight, the fight these guys had to have. Georgia Tech put up a pretty good fight also, especially the first half. What were the adjustments --
COACH CALIPARI: Is the ambassador from London here? Where? I need to see the queen, please. We’re coming over next year. Do you know we’re coming over? Can you please let her know that I am the biggest fan? I read everything. I watch everything I can. Amazing, amazing woman.
She’s going to say who is this guy? (Laughter) She’ll say, where is he from, Italy? What’s his name?
Q. The adjustments at half that you made --
COACH CALIPARI: Brad (Calipari) had 20 tonight. He was 6-for-10 from the 3-point line, by the way.
Q. How did Brad do on defense? The first half --
COACH CALIPARI: I’m a father. I wasn’t watching him play on defense. All I said every time he gets the ball, shoot. If they don’t throw him the ball, pass it to him. If they sub him out of the game? [Off mic].
No, I go get something to eat. I’m not watching the game. He’s not in. But anyway --
Q. About the fight.
COACH CALIPARI: They stayed in the game. They didn’t go away until there was one stretch where we pushed it out. But let me say this, they missed three open 3s, wide open, that they don’t normally miss. Those three, if they make those three, they may have beat us.
You’re sitting there with where we are right now, at times you’re just trying to get out of the gym. Let’s just get out of here. But look, we’re a work in progress. Every year we go through the same thing. I forget how hard it is. I forget what did it look like in March, yeah, if you remember Tyler Herro couldn’t make a shot in November, do you remember that, and he’s scoring 30 in the NBA against NBA teams.
He couldn’t make a shot in November. And then all of a sudden it just changes. And the light will go off on these guys. I just gotta be there in form and get them to understand that I can’t do it for you. I don’t have a magic wand. You’re going to have to fight.
If you think it’s something else, you’re probably going to stay in the same position you’re in. If you learn to fight in battle, you’ll see stuff change.
The hardest thing is the skill stuff. The easiest thing is playing hard. Fighting. Great energy. Effort. No. Truly that’s the hardest part of this. We had Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He was drafted number two because of all that stuff. Because no one wants to be that. They want to be the guy that throws, passes and shoots balls and jogs around, thumbs up, makes a 3 and goes like that.
They don’t want to be the guy diving on the floor, taking charges, fighting for rebounds with guys that are bigger and getting hit in the face with an elbow. I don’t want that. Just let me have more shots.
We’re going through a little bit of that. And I’ve got a great group of guys, if you watched us practice you walk out and say he’s got great guys that want to be coached.
Q. John, this is your 10th year-
COACH CALIPARI: 11th year. And it’s dog years here. So, it’s not normal years. So, I’m at 77.
Q. I don’t think I’ve heard you talk about fight so much with your other teams. Is this a reflection of this team’s personality?
COACH CALIPARI: Yeah, because those teams fought. Do you think Ashton (Hagans) fights?
COACH CALIPARI: So, what if I had a team full of guys that played with his kind of fight? How does Ashton (Hagans) shoot the ball? But he fights. He’s getting better, though, isn’t he? Making free throws, making some shots. All that, if you fight, the teams we have coming up, I’m telling you, the best teams in college basketball are the teams that fight. They’re not the skilled -- they’ve got talent. They wouldn’t be, one, two, three, four, five in the country if they didn’t.
If this team -- I said it how long ago? -- if we fight, we’ll be fine. I’m trying to go fight and finish. How do we finish off games? Fight and finish. It’s all I’m talking about. That’s all I’m addressing.
#5 Immanuel Quickley, G, So.
On what he thought of the team’s performance today and if the right strides are being made …
“Yeah definitely. We’re definitely not where we want to be thought. I think toward February and March we’ll see even more strides than now so we’re just trying to get toward March and hopefully make a big tournament run.”
On if he liked the three guards starting …
“Loved it. I think we’re really versatile when we play three guards. Me, Ashton (Hagans), and Tyrese (Maxey) are really good offensively and defensively so you don’t really lose anything when you go three guards.”
On Keion (Brooks Jr.) getting better …
“Keion (Brooks Jr.) has been hooping. He’s really tough and more athletic than anybody who steps on the floor, so he definitely gives you something that a lot of guys and teams don’t have.”
On what he thinks is the next step for this team …
“Next step for this team is getting everybody to play well. Some guys are playing well but some guys are just trying to find their way. Some of our freshman and stuff. Once we all get playing well, we’re going to be a hard team to beat.”
#12 Keion Brooks, F, Fr.
On places inside the court where he feels most comfortable …
“I know my spots where I’m most comfortable, I try to stay in those spots, and I try to stay out of spots where I’m not as comfortable as I usually am. So just I try to find an open spot where I can rely on my training and my skill to make the shot.”
On comfort level with the flow of the game now compared to high school …
“It’s night and day. First coming here, I was a little confused and lost at times but with practice, games, and constant repetition I’m really where I’m supposed to be on the floor.”
On how he feels about the upcoming games against highly ranked teams …
“I’m up for the challenge to see how good we are. Georgia Tech was another good game that could really test us to see how far we’ve come from the beginning of the season until now, so I’m up for it and excited to stack up and see how good we are.”
#2 Ashton Hagans, G, So.
On how he played today ...
“I agree with you on that, too. I had a lot of forced turnovers that I should not have had, but I just tried to do what I could do to get my team a win.”
On how valid Coach Calipari’s observation is ...
“I wouldn’t say I get bored. I just lose pieces of the game at moments, but I wouldn’t say bored. I just try to go out there and just keep moving, keep attacking, and try to get everybody involved.”
On where he thinks the team is at right now ...
“I think we are at our midway point right now. We reaching to the point we’re trying to get right now. We just got to all stay together, but you know it’s coming along. We got one of our biggest pieces out right now, one of the main focuses on this team out, so once he’s back, we going to be all tied in and ready to fight. Overall, I think we’re getting there and got to keep fighting.”
On if he was looking to improve on his offensive game coming into the year ...
“Yeah, overall. I just want to let it come to me, just keep playing on the defensive end, talk to the guys, try to be more of a leader out there. I try not to focus on the offensive end at all really too much, I just try to come as much as possible.”