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Calipari and Wildcats preview Utah

The Cats and Utes will face off in a game that will begin Wednesday and end Thursday.

John Calipari, Tyrese Maxey, Nate Sestina, huddle Greg Goins - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are heading to Vegas for arguably the biggest week of their season thus far.

It begins Wednesday with the Utah Utes, a team that has some quality wins already and, as a west coast team, will be used to playing late at night, as this game won’t begin until 11 pm EST on Wednesday.

After that, Kentucky gets arguably its biggest test of the season Saturday when they face the Ohio State Buckeyes, who opened as the No. 1 overall team in the NCAA’s first NET rankings.

Needless to say, this week will tell us a lot about the 2019-20 edition of Kentucky Basketball.

Ahead of the trip to Vegas, head coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to preview Utah. Here is a recap of everything they had to say via UK Athletics.

John Calipari

On Wednesday’s 11 p.m. ET tipoff vs. Utah in Las Vegas …

“The only good news I know is that it will be 11 o’clock my players’ time and they will be happy-go-lucky. It’s 11 o’clock, they’re just getting up, ready to go. If you’re a coach at that time, it’s a little bit harder. We’ll get out there tonight. We’re going to practice, try to get them to sleep tonight, hopefully keep them up on the plane. I don’t know how many (media members) will be (in Las Vegas) already, but you’re welcome to come to our practice there. We weren’t planning on doing as much as we did today, but we did. We’re just telling whoever (media) wants to come to come to the practice. I think it’s at 6:30 at Coronado High School. Local time is 5. So maybe 5, 5:30 at Coronado High School.”

On Kahlil Whitney

“I told the team, we’ve got a ceiling unless he plays for us. We don’t have anybody like him. He’s the one. But if other guys are playing better than him, I have a responsibility to everybody. What he hasn’t done yet is figured it out. He will. He’s a great kid. He’s trying. We did some stuff today. They’ve got to talk more. You’ve got everybody rooting for him; he’s just going to have to go play. I even told him, ‘Don’t be afraid to be Tyrese (Maxey). Go guard their best player, shut him out, go 0 for 9. Don’t be afraid to be Tyrese. Then they say you’re player of the game (and) you were 0 for 9. You were the player of the game. Don’t be afraid to be that. Then the other stuff will happen.’ ”

On Tyrese Maxey’s positive impact despite shooting 0 for 9 vs. Georgia Tech …

“He was proud of himself. He came in, ‘I may not have played well, but I know I guarded that dude.’ He was proud of himself. That’s when you start seeing the change. It’s hard because of the clutter. The clutter is the only way you get your name in the newspaper when you’re in high school, in grade school, in junior high—score points. So, go out there and score points. At this point, none of that matters. Going forward, I’ll be honest with you, you have to be skilled each level. If you’re not skilled, you can’t make it. But the whole point of it being, do you play basketball? Do you help your team win? Do you play with unbelievable effort? I told them the other day, I said, ‘Look, there are things you control and things you don’t. Coaches coach, players play. I choose how much you play. You choose how you play and what kind of effort you play with. If you want more, you play better and whatever you get. Coaches coach, players play. You want to play at that next level? Great. You’re not playing a whole lot. Your family is going to walk in and talk to the coach? Players play, coaches coach.’ We have talented guys that are learning how to fight. That has nothing to do with offense. They’re learning how to fight, how to stay connected. I told them, ‘I don’t have a magic wand. I can’t do it for you. You’re going to have to do it.’ But this is a program that lets guys go. But, most of that means fight and effort and play for your team, and we’re learning. Again, I’ll say it again. Kahlil has got to play at a level that he is capable of playing for us to be what we need to be. Everybody knows it, everybody is watching it. It may take time. So, what if it takes him a month? Who cares? They’re only going to watch him at the end of the year, and at the end of the year is when this stuff really counts. It’s taken him more time than I thought it would. Keion (Brooks Jr.) has kind of broken through a little bit. Why? Because I had him playing against Nick (Richards) and he had to fight Nick or surrender. He surrendered early and we kind of let him know. Not sarcastic or anything. I just let him know that you’re getting killed. He started fighting. All of a sudden, you see an aggressive player who’s not worried about how cute it is. You’ve got to fight. So, again, I like the three-guard lineup. I don’t know in this game (how much we will use it vs. Utah because) they’ve got some big wings. Whether we can do it, we’ll see. We’ve got to get EJ (Montgomery) playing more aggressive, going after balls, going after blocked shots, being in a (defensive) stance longer, sprinting, subbing when you feel tired. Nick has got to be more consistent, be more disciplined, he and Ashton (Hagans). Ashton is in a good place. But, we are what we are. I don’t care where we’re rated. We may be one of 30 teams, maybe. Maybe 35. If they’re saying we’re the best in the country, there are a lot of bad teams. There might be, and we’re one of them.”

On if he was surprised Ohio State lost to Minnesota earlier this week …

“I was, but you know what? You go on the road—look, my teams historically are marked teams, so we’re used to doing it. A lot of teams are not. Like, you’re just the next game on that team’s schedule. We’re marked. So, our kids get used to having an unbelievable effort and you’re not surprised by shots going in. You’re not surprised by players getting 40 points and the next game they get eight. They get 40 on you because they’re playing out of their minds. They’re jumping higher. We’re used to that. Maybe other teams aren’t, I don’t know. But I do know this: If Ohio State isn’t the best team in the country right now, they’re the second-best team. They’re physical. They’ve got size. Their guard play, they’re so well coached. They defend. They fight. They’ve got some veterans. They’re legit. And Utah, the tapes that I’ve watched of Utah, they play, and they play different. Their bigs step out to shoot. So, you’ve gotta play stuff a little different. The great thing with these guys, we had to change up a little bit of what we did against Georgia Tech, how we guarded elbows, how we guarded out-of-bounds plays. We did it within a day and a half and these guys got it, and they did exactly what we wanted them to do. I’ve got a smart team. So, I don’t want to give them too much, but there’s stuff against Utah that you’ve gotta do different. We went over it yesterday and today a little bit, and hopefully I’m not confusing them. All in all, I’ve got a smart basketball team.”

On if he knew former Utah coach Rick Majerus …

“Well. I knew him well. I went out and spent some time with him when he was out in Utah. We had the NBA lockout and I ended up drafting one of his guys, Keith Van Horn, and I saw him in that practice and fell in love with him there and ended up drafting him. He had a heck of a year for me. Shoot, I can remember we went through LA and played the Lakers and he got 38 against the Lakers. But I went out and spent time with him – and a basketball genius and one of the biggest-hearted people you’d ever meet. Let me just tell you. I know for a fact when guys got fired in our profession, if he knew you, he’d send you a check. Like, ‘You probably need this right now.’ Like, $5,000. I’m not talking about 100 bucks. Like, if he knew, no one else knew. The only reason I know it is because two of the guys told me. Like, ‘He’s the best. Do you know what he did for me?’ He didn’t do it for any reason other than, ‘You know what? I’ve been in this. This is a tough business and if I can help you, I will.’ So, my respect for him and the guys that worked for him. Del Harris who was with him in Milwaukee with the Bucks and would tell you he’s one of the best human beings ever. I’ll say it again: a basketball genius. It’s all he did was basketball. I’m a little bit like, I like watching the Alaska shows and I don’t sleep in my office. This guy was basketball. He was like Kentucky Fried Chicken. We do chicken. There are no hamburgers here. Nothing. We do chicken. That’s kind of what he was.”

On practice this week …

“Better yesterday. It was an absolute fist fight. I told them, ‘I had more fun yesterday.’ We’re practicing earlier. Like, I’ll go workout and lift and do my thing and then I go in there and work. I feel better. I’m telling them, when they come back, I think we might practice at 10:30. Go for a couple of hours and if we need to come back, come back at night just because it seems like we’re at our best – the coaches and the players versus going at 3 o’clock, later in the day. We’ll have to see. But, they – yesterday I put EJ (Montgomery) up against Nick (Richards). I’ve gotta get EJ fighting. Nick and EJ went at each other and let those two go. I put Tyrese (Maxey) against? Ashton (Hagans). Let him scramble his mind a little bit. Like, ‘Go, Ashton. Go at him.’ So, you’re trying to get all of these guys and then in the interim you’re trying to get Kahlil (Whitney) going. You stay up nights, how do I help him break through? Is there anything I can do? Some of it is just experience. Some of it is, listen to me, reps. But not at the expense of winning and losing. You know what I’m saying? He needs reps. He needs to go through this. But we’ve also got to win games. So, it’s a push and a pull. Love the team. Love these guys. We’ve got two hard games in Vegas. Both of them. We could lose both and go home at Christmas and not be a very good Christmas, but you almost have to surrender to that so we can just play. So, I surrender to it. That could happen to us. I walk into every game and say the same thing. Whatever happens, I’ll deal with. Win or lose, I’ll deal with whatever happens so that I can just coach the game. Now, I’m trying to get these guys in the same frame of mind. Surrender to the result. It could happen. We could lose. We could play like crap. We could miss every shot. We went 0-for-20 against one team in the NCAA Tournament and lost. We went 0-for-20. How many times are you going to go 0-for-20? We did that night, so you almost have to say, ‘Let’s just surrender to whatever can happen and let’s play.’”

On if this team rises to the level of its opponent …

“We’ll see, won’t we? We’ll see. They get more locked in, but, you know. We’re a team I would hope and go out and—Steve Smith’s father was in our practice yesterday and he said – the thing came up – ‘You guys gotta get from 10 and get the game to 25.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we’re getting it from 25 to six.’ We’re going the wrong way. I don’t know if it’s opponent or what, but finishing games off, we’ve gotta learn and this will be a good one for us.”

On DeAndre Liggins being a good comparison for where he would like to see Kahlil Whitney end up …

“Oh yeah, that’s a great comparison. Yes, yes. And it’s like I said – and I just told them – ‘Why don’t you pick this game and be like Tyrese? Play unbelievable defense and go 0 for 9.’ I mean, ‘I don’t want to be that.’ That’s the mentality and the mindset, it’s all—and let me say this to you guys before we go: These kids have gotta fail some. If they’re going to go and think they’re going to do this for the rest of their life, how do you deal with failure? How do you deal with not playing a whole lot? How do you deal with, you’re not getting it or you’re not—how do you take your game? How do you do (it)? Are you getting enabled? Are you delusional and always blaming yourself, or can you self-evaluate in failure and say, ‘I got this?’ Like, we support them, but we can’t – at the end of the day – we can’t do it for them. Guys gotta go out and perform, and it’s hard here. I mean, you’re under the lights here.”

#3, Tyrese Maxey, Fr., G

On what he liked about Monday’s practice …

“Competition. Yesterday in practice there was a lot of competing. We were going at each other like we always do, and I feel like we got a lot better.”

On the weighted wall-sits …

“They were amazing. Thank you, Coach.”

On how big of a step it was to miss all his shots but still play good defense …

“It was an amazing step. I think I’m like 1 for 17 – Coach won’t let me forget – from the last two games, but I’m still extremely happy that we won those games. I was out there playing defense. Scoring is not—we have a lot of guys on our team that are going to be able to score, so I don’t need to score every single night. I just want to help my teammates win, whatever I need to do. Rebounds, assists, play defense. It was my night to stop the best player and that’s what I did.”

On whether he has ever gone 1 for 17 …

“Nope, but it’s one time for everything and, like I said, I’m still happy. I put in work every single day, so I know I’m never going to stop shooting because I feel like the next one’s going to go in.”

On being ready for an 11 o’clock start …

“Oh yeah, of course. Up all night. We’re teenagers. What are we doing, playing a game or something? We’re up doing something, so the time’s not going to do anything to us. We’re just ready to play, have a lot of fun with each other.”

On being eager to be tested this week …

“I think we test ourselves every single game. We just play against ourselves. Coach always says we’re in the way of ourselves and we play against each other. I feel like we’re just going to go out there, do what we’ve been doing in practice, compete and have a lot of fun.”

On whether this group will rise to the occasion …

“I think so. I think this group is focused. Every game we play, especially these big games coming up, I feel like we’re going to be prepared and ready to go.”

On facing Ashton Hagans in practice …

“We just go at each other, I guess you could say. Coach put us on different teams all the time and it just makes us both better. I feel like I do a good job making him better, he does a good job making me better and then we get on the court and attack the other team’s guards. It’s hard for them to score (and) it’s hard for them to stop us. It feels really good.”

On what he says to Kahlil Whitney …

“Cal always uses the analogy of ‘don’t let go of the rope.’ So I just tell him, ‘Don’t let go of the rope. Stay connected with the team,’ which he’s doing a really good job, has a really good attitude about it. It’s hard, man. What do we have, like nine, 10 guys that (are) five, four stars? But he doesn’t have to score all the time. I just tell him, ‘Stay connected, play good defense and do what’s best for the team.’”

On whether competing against Hagans has made him enjoy defense …

“I think at an early age when I was younger my dad pushed me to play a lot of defense, but even playing with or playing against Ashton you have to play good defense, especially when you’re out there on the court with him. That’s what he does, and I feel like he’s helped us a lot. We pick our defense up as soon as we step up on the court.”

On what he has picked up from Hagans …

“When he guards me out here, we’re always competitive but at the end of the day we’re still teammates. So, he always shows me little nuances that he uses when we’re on defense that I start using on my game and it makes it a lot easier and a lot harder for them to score.”

#21, Zan Payne, R-Fr., G/F

On how preparations for Las Vegas are going …

“We’ve been good. We’ve just been going over the plays, getting ready, going over the other team’s plays. Just getting five on five in, getting some aggressive play, going at it, going against each other.”

On how excited the team is about going to Las Vegas …

“Yeah, everybody should be excited. I think it should be fun for everybody going to Las Vegas, too.”

On his physical health …

“Good. I’ve just started to practice lately. After practice, my knee has been swelling up a little bit, so that’s been holding me back. But that’s just the process of having a knee (injury).”

On how he stays engaged when he’s not on the floor …

“Just sitting on the sidelines watching. Watching them go over the plays, then asking the coaches questions. If you ask the coaches questions, that’s really important to them. They know that you’re paying attention.”

On what part of his game he’s working on …

“Just going out there, competing, just being somebody helping the other teammates get better.”

On the timetable for him to return …

“It’s really just up to the trainer and how I feel, but there’s no timetable.”

On how hard it has been to sit out …

“It’s been really hard. It’s just a process, I guess.”

On the bond on this team …

“We all just started getting closer. We go everywhere together. It really just helps everybody become closer and it actually helps you play together better. So when you’re out on the court, you know you’re not by yourself, you have your teammates with you and they always have your back.”

On what it’s like to be on a team when your dad is an assistant coach …

“He’s harder on me, so whenever I mess up, he’s always giving me a look or just staring me down. So, after practice, he’ll teach me what I did wrong.”