The Kentucky Wildcats are now 7-1 following their 83-52 demolition of Fairleigh Dickinson.
It was a game Kentucky was in firm command of from start to finish thanks to a 17-0 run in the first half to put this game out of reach early.
The veterans led the way for the young Wildcats, as Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery combined for 37 points and 19 boards, while Ashton Hagans scored 11 and dished out 11 assists.
Now the schedule gets tougher, as Kentucky faces a pair of Power 5 teams in Georgia Tech and Utah, followed by a pair of likely top-five opponents in Ohio State and Louisville. That’s why it was imperative that the Wildcats got off to a strong start this month, as they’re going to need similar performances to keep winning before SEC play begins in January.
After the game, head coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to recap Kentucky’s win over the Knights. Here’s a recap of everything they had to say via UK Athletics:
Q. It seems like since EJ (Montgomery) came off of injury, he’s become a completely different player. What do you attribute that to?
JOHN CALIPARI: “Well, he’s healthy. He’s being more confident. He’s playing more physical. But like I told him, I said he exchanged baskets too many times today. Like, we’re going to be playing teams where you have to fight to stay in front, to go grab balls with two hands.
“You know, and again, I may be asking a lot of you at 28  points, and he’s 12 out of 16, is that what he was, 12 out are whatever, but I’m looking beyond just this game. Like, OK, where do we gotta take this? Same with Tyrese (Maxey). I thought Keion (Brooks Jr.) was terrific, but then when he missed three balls right near the rim because of a little physical play, he just threw it vs. I’m going to take the contact and make it. We’re still a work-in-progress.
“I’ll say this. I am so – Kahlil (Whitey) is making strides, but his attitude is so good. It is incredible. Like -- and they all know, I notice everything. You may think I’m just screaming but I’m listening and I’m watching. I’m on everything. And watching and hearing him cheer for his teammates and then go. And he’s still figuring it out. He’s not where he’s going to be here in a month but this stuff was all new and it kind of accident happened him a little bit. I hugged him in there. I said, ‘I am so proud of you. Your attitude is unbelievable.’
“And then I gotta remind these guys after the game -- even Nick (Richards). Nick could have had 25 and 15 and he goes and messes around, and I’m responsible for each one of these kids becoming their best version and I’m also responsible for winning as many games as we can win. Like here, it’s like every game by 20. But I also have that responsibility, and how do I go about it, what am I doing. It’s all different situation. Every kid is different, but I’m holding him to a high standard.
“Had a great week of practice, which followed this. Now we got another week of practice. If I can go two and three a days, I will. Are they still in class? [Yes, next week.] I’ve got to talk to Dr. (Eli) Capilouto, see if he’ll cancel classes, give me three days. Anyway. But we’ve gotten better because of it.”
Q. This was Kentucky’s 600th win at the Rupp Arena. What does it mean to you and the whole university?
JOHN CALIPARI: “Look, I said this before: This started with Coach (Adolph) Rupp. He never really got to coach in this building, but everybody who has followed him has won a national title -- just about everybody. Everyone that’s followed him has probably won 90% of their games in this building. It’s not just me. It’s like everybody. He set that base.
“I brag on Coach (Joe B.) Hall all the time because who would want to follow that? And he did and went to Final Fours and won a national title and had all the stuff in the league everything and that he did.
“This is a unique place. I mean, this is one of those, you know. I’m blessed that I even had an opportunity. I mean, you know, how did I get here and what happened for me personally, I don’t know. “But this university, you know, even now, I mean, what’s happening in all the sports. Let’s go volleyball. They have got to win today. They are playing Michigan. But whether it’s softball, baseball, whatever it is, our cheer, dance team -- think about it. And the pride, all 50 states, 100 different countries, every county in our state represented here, $3 billion in buildings, academic entrance exams, our scores have never been higher in the history of this school. We’re like on that kind of climb.
“I’m just happy that I could be a part of it, and you know, I don’t know how many we’ve won in this building -- how many, whatever that. But you know, I’m glad that we’ve played a part of it.
Q. Anything in particular Johnny Juzang did to earn his first start?
JOHN CALIPARI: Fought. How about the biggest play of the game? You won’t know it because you guys don’t know basketball, but the biggest play of the game was, we’re struggling, I’ve got to call timeout. Like, what are you doing. We do this every game.
“Like, why would you give the -- take two bad shots and let them get seven points in a row on a 7-0 run? Tell me, what? We go down, Johnny, drive, misses the shot, but grabs it, and lay it is back in, gets fouled, makes two free throws, he stopped the bleeding. And it wasn’t like he did anything but fight. And that’s what he’s been doing in practice.
“And I want to get some guys fighting, coming off the bench. Like, I need you. You want to go back to starting or you want to start, earn it in practice. Fight. So -- but he deserved it. He really did.”
Q. I didn’t know if you got a chance to read Jerry Tipton’s article this morning on Coach (Greg) Herenda, he was referencing coach’s significant health challenges and how that changed his entire perspective.
JOHN CALIPARI: “Let me say this: I never read Jerry, but go ahead, say what you’re saying. What else was it? Rose, don’t laugh at me. You encourage me by laughing.”
Q. How his main illness had changed his entire perspective on how he dealt with his players, he’s a lot more compassionate. I know you’re pretty demonstrative and demanding on the court, but inside you have a deep sense of compassion also. How has that changed over the years in which you’ve been coaching?
JOHN CALIPARI: “Well, and Greg has been a good friend for a long time. We’re hoping his son comes to school here, by the way. And he’s an unbelievable coach on top of being a great guy. And he and I were in the east for a long time together.
“But what happens as you age, you know, the reality of what this is kind of hits you. Early on, you’re trying to survive. Like I had no basement to go back to. Like, there wasn’t like, OK dad, I’ve got to go work for you. No.
“So early in your career, you’re in a dogfight. Everything is a struggle. Everything is a fight to survive. You hit a certain point and then you realize – like when I get together with the UMASS guys, like, I apologize. I know what I was like. I can’t believe you could play for me, and not only that, you fought for me and won. And they say I’m soft. So when they see me coach in practice now, they say, ‘You got soft.’
“But times have changed in this regard: This social media and all the other stuff that they read, when we grew up -- not some of you young guys here -- there were three channels: ABC, NBC, CBS. There wasn’t 195, I’ll watch whatever I want. There wasn’t call-waiting. The phone rang 6,000 times. If the guy didn’t hang up the phone, I mean, it just kept ringing and ringing and ringing, and you’re like, does this guy understand I’m not picking up this phone? And he just kept calling, 78 -- I’m counting them now -- it’s 89, 90, 91. He finally hung up the phone. I’m like, are you kidding me? I want to pick up the phone. Who would dial a phone 90 straight times? But I didn’t. Now these kids, in any part of the world can get ahold of them and tell them whatever they want to hear. It’s different how you -- like these kids need me in a different way than kids in the past. And they need more individual meetings. They need to know, yes, I do love you, even though I’m hard on you. They need to know stuff that. I had kids, we were just talking about Bruce, my brother. He said, ‘Cal, you used to get on guys at UMASS and they wanted to prove you wrong.’
“’You think that? Yeah? Watch this.’ I had one guy, I can’t remember exactly what I called him -- I do remember -- but he started making baskets and he got 30 in the second half at Rhode Island. And Jimmy McCoy, every basket he made, he looked at me, ‘How about that?’ And I didn’t say anything because we ended up beating him by a hundred because he got 30 in the second half. But even that case, I didn’t go back and smooth that over, and it bubbled for too long. I should have gone right away. I learned that lesson.
“But now if I do that same thing to some of these kids, they are more fragile. There’s so much stuff coming at them that you’ve got to deal with it different. I’m still holding them accountable. And I told them after the game, ‘What’s the best version of you look like? And it can’t be in just one area. It’s got to be. This is what you need to do.’
“And I think they know we care and we’re about them. Yeah, we’ve got to win, but we are about their growth and we are about what they are doing. Yeah, I’ve changed because I don’t have the energy. Like, you won’t believe this, I’ve got to get sleep. I’ve got to sleep before where I could go and go. Now, at 48 [media laughs], when you start getting older like this, you’ve got to get more rest.”
Q. Coach Herenda said that he felt like today was a quote “Kentucky festival.” Based on your good mood, was it a festival based on how your big men played today?
JOHN CALIPARI: “I didn’t think Nick played particularly well, but you know, I told him, ‘You got arrogant today.’ Hungry and humble. Hungry and humble. You start getting arrogant and what happens is all the -- he’s invested in his positive, his own self-esteem. He invested in it and it can be taken away -- not by me -- but by himself. And reverting back and playing in a way that you played a year ago when I couldn’t keep you in games, I couldn’t keep you in. You’re not doing that stuff, and you reverted today.
“Again, it’s my job. Even at the end of the game, we didn’t finish the way I want. I talked to them after. ‘I don’t care about the score. We are trying to get better and how do we finish a game off.’
“Keion did well. Immanuel (Quickley) I think is playing well. Ashton (Hagans), again, 11-2, and he knew, because I asked him. ‘How many turnovers you had?’
“He said, ‘I had two.’ So he’s getting the idea of got to be more careful with the ball. The last two games, he’s 32-4, assist-to-turnover ratio. Well, let me see if anybody in the country is doing that.”
Q. So you’re getting into a tough part of the schedule with Georgia Tech and Utah.
JOHN CALIPARI: “Utah, yeah, Ohio State. Ohio State and Louisville they are saying are the best two teams in the country. And you know why? Both teams fight. Both teams are unbelievably coached. Both teams are playing -- they are screening. They are creating good shots for each other. If you walk in that game with any coolness, you’ll get beat by 30. Thirty!
“I’m not worried about them right now because we have Georgia Tech and Utah. Utah scored 143 points in one game. They are 6-1, 7-1 – 143 points. We couldn’t do that if it was 5-0. We couldn’t get to 143 running our stuff. So we’ve got a tough road ahead of us.
“And Georgia Tech, the games that Georgia Tech has played for Josh (Pastner) has got them ready to come in here and play us.”
Q. So what would you say is the No. 1 thing the team needs to work on?
JOHN CALIPARI: “Fight and finish. That’s all I’m focused on right now. Fight. What does that mean? That means when you’re playing against another guy, you’re not just exchanging baskets. You’re trying to dominate him. But listen, you’ve got to help us dominate them. So you can’t just worry about dominating him, but you’ve got to dominate him. You’ve got to fight for a rebound. You don’t run from contact. How about this? He’s trying to bump you on a drive. Well, fight back and play through two bumps before you shoot it. He bumps me and I shoot a runner, you didn’t fight. He fought, and you didn’t.
“He’s trying to fight you to go into a screen. Well, I’m forcing him that way and I’m going to fight harder than he fights to run me into the screen. I’m going to fight to get over it. All this stuff. How about this: Did you see us run better today? Like, we ran.
“Well, we’ve worked on that, because again, you know what that means? I’m going to fight to out-run my guy. However hard he runs, I’m going to run harder. How about running back on defense? However hard he runs, I’m running faster because I’m going to fight. That’s all the fight that this team -- we were exchanging baskets, and we have some guys that were saying, ‘I’ll be alright.’ Really? No, you won’t. That has to change.
“So we’ve got another week. Fight and finish. And that’s all I’m focused on right now. The end of the game, last four minutes, how are we going to play?
“But this was good for this team. This was good. Now, and again, obviously we got work to do, but we’re making the strides we need to make.
#23 EJ Montgomery, F, So.
On how soon he realized this could be a big game for him…
“After I made my first shot, I just felt confident out there and I just went out there and tried to compete.”
On the momentum of the game…
“We all just went out there and fought. We’ve been having hard practices and we just was ready to go out there and play a game and just put it all together.”
On what he did differently to have a breakout game…
“Just my mindset. Just coming to the game, just felt like this was my game to go out there and show what I do.”
On Ashton Hagans…
“He is doing a great job. I’m loving it because he is passing it to me, and to everyone else. He is a great point guard.”
On the competition getting tougher from here…
“The main focus has been ‘fight and finish.’ We just have to get better every day in practice.”
On his improved shot…
“I’ve been working on my shot for a very long time. I just continue to work on it, so I’m getting more confident and shooting in the games and getting repetitions in practice. Just things like that.”
#12 Keion Brooks Jr., F, Fr.
On EJ Montgomery’s performance…
“EJ has been playing really well since coming back from tweaking his ankle. He’s been working real hard to get back, and the work that he’s put in is finally showing off and he’s been playing exceptional.”
On what (John) Calipari expects from you…
“He wants me to play harder every possession. Coming from high school, I wasn’t required to have to fight and play hard each and every possession. It’s just been a learning curve for me, but I’m getting used to it.”
On Calipari describing what the team wasn’t doing right…
“We came out to a big lead, but we still have to finish the game better. Like he said, we need to fight and finish. We’re a young team, we still have to figure out how to close out games and put teams away. We’re getting better at it, but it will take some time, but we’ve really been focusing on fighting and finishing out the game.”
#0 Ashton Hagans, G, So.
On overall impression on how the team played today…
“Not really, you know. The whole focus on the practice this week is just fight, fight and finish. I think we came out in the beginning fighting, being aggressive, just sticking to the game plan.”
On advantage to have a whole week of practice without a game…
“You know, it was big time. You know Cal (John Calipari) always works and do what he does, but you we just get in the gym grinding this whole week, trying to get after this big game. Now we are moving on to Georgia state next week, another big week, that we need to prepare.”
On seeing the floor so well…
“You know, it’s my teammates helping me moving, getting open as I drive, and you know, if it’s not there, I just rely on them to knock down the shot. You know they knock it down. You know that just comes with reps in practice, going hard in practice and everything like that.”