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John Calipari, Kenny Payne & Wildcats preview Missouri

With the Tennessee win behind them, the Cats talked about their upcoming battle with the Missouri Tigers.

Reid Travis Aaron Gershon - A Sea of Blue

The No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats are coming off their best win of the season.

After falling to then-ranked No. 19 LSU at home last Tuesday, the Cats rebounded in a big way by dominating the top overall team in the country and bitter rival Tennessee Volunteers by a score of 86-69 Saturday evening.

The win allowed Kentucky to leapfrog Tennessee as the top-ranked SEC team in the AP Poll, as the Cats moved up from fifth to fourth, and the Vols fell from the top spot all the way down to fifth.

As great as the win was, Kentucky now needs to regroup and get ready to play a team that defeated them a year ago.

Tuesday night, Kentucky will travel to Columbia (MO) to take on the Missouri Tigers. It will be the first and only meeting between the two schools in 2019.

In 2018, the Tigers and Wildcats split two regular-season meetings. Kentucky won big at Rupp Arena, but in Columbia, they fell by a final score of 69-60 in a game they were manhandled from start to finish.

Unlike this year, however, it is not an NCAA Tournament-bound Tiger team the Wildcats will be traveling to play.

Missouri comes into Tuesday tied for 11th in the SEC with an overall record of 12-12 and conference record of 3-9.

Their conference wins came against two of the three teams they’re ahead in the conference in Texas A&M and Vanderbilt and an Arkansas team that is in 10th in the conference.

Nonetheless, the Tigers are no pushover. Missouri lost by only 12 to Tennessee in Knoxville earlier this month and fell to an LSU team that defeated Kentucky by only six in overtime.

On the weekly SEC teleconference, John Calipari said “At Tennessee, they had their chances and did a great job in a hostile environment. We know they’re good enough to beat us.”

While Calipari spoke on the teleconference, associate head coach Kenny Payne, Ashton Hagans and Reid Travis met with the media to preview tomorrow’s game in Missouri.

Here’s a summary of what they had to say via UK Athletics:

John Calipari

On this week’s games against Missouri and Auburn …

“It’s another tough week. This league is as good as any in the country and everybody you play has a chance to win. I don’t care what the matchup is. You’re not walking in thinking, ‘Yeah, we can get this one.’ I’m happy with how we played last game defensively, but we’ve played a couple of bad halves defensively and it’s cost us.”

On Auburn’s 3-point shooting …

“Well there’s all kinds of different ways of playing this game. They put a heavy emphasis on the 3-point shot and probably rightfully so for their team because they can make them in bunches. We had them down pretty good at Auburn and all of the sudden they make three or four 3’s in a row and it’s like anybody’s ball game. So, I think they’re playing to their strength. Austin Wiley is really good though. I coached him. I had him at the USA Basketball. Really good, and a great kid. So they can beat you more than just one way though.”

On Missouri …

“Well, again, Cuonzo (Martin) is coaching his team and playing the way they have to play to win. One, you know his teams are always going to be good defensively. They’re going to lock you down and they’re going to turn down ball screens. They’re going to fight you on pick-and-rolls, fight you on pin downs. Then offensively they’re playing through Tillman as much as they can, yet they’re taking around 25 3’s a game, making eight. Whatever their record is there were two or three other games they had a chance to win. They played at Tennessee and had their chances and did a great job in a hostile environment. We know that they’re good enough to beat us. We know that. Having their best player go down early, affected their team. But they’ve recovered from that.”

Kenny Payne

On why getting “hit in the mouth” like they did vs. LSU is so important to a team …

“Definitely in my playing days, anytime you’re a young team and you have early success or success, the tendency is to let up. The LSU game probably for some of these kids helps them understand that anybody can beat you. LSU is a very good team, one of the two or three, four best teams in our conference. We had to come out and play and learn from the mistakes that we made in that game in order to play well against Tennessee.”

On if every team needs that at least once a year …

“I think every team needs it more than once a year. I talk about being a young team, but every team has to. It’s normal. You’re human. You’re going to have lapses, and our job as coaches is to make sure that we tell you what you’re about face.”

On what winning the SEC means …

“For this group, I think it means a lot. I think these kids need to know that they are champions, that they are the gold standard of this conference, and not just by our eyes but everybody’s eyes. That’s important. That’s important for them to feel good about the work that they’ve put in, how hard we train, how hard we practice, how hard Coach Cal pushes these kids in order to be a great team, and the result of that is winning. So, as much as we can win, we want to win.”

On why it’s important to feel like the “gold standard” …

“Because when we get into an NCAA tournament, every game is intense. Every game is every possession matters. Defensively, the way that game went against Tennessee is how we have to play in that tournament, so that’s vital. That’s vital.”

On the team attacking from the start on a big stage …

“I don’t know. I thought North Carolina, they jumped on them early. There’s been a couple of occasions where the initial part of the game and the start of the game they’ve been the aggressor. Tennessee was another one. There’s no secrets. Tennessee is a great team. They were the No. 1 team in the country, well deserved, well coached, but these kids here, they went through the ups and downs of basketball really because they started out with all of this hype. We go to the Bahamas, we play great, we beat professional teams and then they have the Duke game. Well, they went through the lows of that, and so, to come back and fight through, confidence is a big thing in this game. When they go through the mental lows of basketball, they get tested, and it’s not about a strategy or X and O; it’s more the mental approach of being great, and that’s the standard.”

On if the Duke hangover lasted longer than expected …

“Probably to the surrounding people more than to the players – the fans, their parents, us as coaches. But the kids, they were hurt, they were devastated, but they moved on from it.”

On the rotation of the four big men …

“I’ll say it again: I think we have four of the most unique bigs in the country: Nick (Richards), EJ (Montgomery), Reid (Travis) and PJ (Washington). To me it doesn’t really matter which two is on the floor. To be honest with you, there are times where if Coach wanted to, we could put all three on the court. So, which two players are the best together, Coach will figure that out. There may be a time when EJ and PJ are on the court together. Again, you need players.”

On Richards’ difficulty with foul trouble …

“Again, the mental lapses. You know, five free throws in 30-40 seconds, whatever time lapse that was where we’re shooting a free throw, he gets a foul, they make two, come down the other end and he fouls a 3-point shooter. It’s a mental lapse. No need for it, but the first half of that game, Nick Richards was really good.”

On Missouri’s turnovers and how that plays on his mind with the way the Cats have played defense …

“I think that Coach Barbee and Coach Cal have done an unbelievable job of getting this team to buy into defense. They work together hand in hand. Coach gives Tony a bunch of responsibilities and different strategies, different ways of guarding different things. And what we found is that is when we are the aggressor defensively and we are swarming, we’re pretty good, which leads into transition baskets. And that’s the way we want to play. So, the fact that Missouri has shown a tendency to turn the ball over, our job is to pressure them, and we have to pressure them without fouling and allow that to get us in transition where our young players are comfortable, and they are really fast and they are really athletic and they are tough to deal with. This team, when we are getting transition baskets and we are playing free, it’s a different atmosphere. Ashton Hagans starts that with his on-the-ball defense, and then when we get the rebound or a steal in his hands and he flies up the court, we are different.”

On how important Ashton Hagans’ performance against Tennessee was to get him back going agian …

“More than just Tennessee against what people consider the No. 1 point guard (Jordan Bone) in this conference. For him to have some success against him was vital because we have been on him about being focused, being disciplined, being disruptive, and it’s hard. He’s never worked as hard as he has worked here. He’s never had to focus as much as he is having to focus here, and he is a freshman. There are times when he pouts; we have to address it. There are times when he’s immature; we have to address it. But then there’s times when he is locked in, and that’s has been a big difference in our team. When he’s locked in, we are really good.”

On what makes Hagans pout …

“Just when he doesn’t get what he wants – a normal 17-year-old, 18-year-old.”

On if it’s on the court of off …

“On the court. On the court mostly. These kids all have pride, and so when they’re confronted for the first time or amongst their teammates, their peers, they get defensive. Ashton is no different and we have to address it.”

On what goes through his mind when players are as demonstrative as Keldon Johnson when things don’t go their way …

“How young they really are. People all the time talk about, ‘I don’t really want to deal with a bunch of freshmen. I want to be a veteran-laden team.’ Well, talent, as coach has said before, it supersedes that. And if you have talented freshmen, you are going to have to deal with some of those emotional rollercoasters. And how you deal with it is vital because if you deal with it and you take their confidence away or what they’re feeling good about what they are doing away, they are not the same players. So it’s is a delicate balance. It’s a very delicate balance, and I would like to think that we have been at the forefront of dealing with young people and helping them play the way they need to play and learn to be winning basketball players.”

On if coaches have a different approach for different players …

“Of course. It has to be. Each kid is different. I have a philosophy that I heard years ago: You can’t coach what you don’t know and every kid is an assignment. The way Keldon Johnson’s personality is is different than the way Tyler’s (Herro) personality is, which is different than the way Ashton’s is, which is totally different than the way EJ’s is. Those four freshmen have to be dealt with separately and more geared toward them and what they are and who they are.”

On the freshmen he’s coached over the years at UK who could take the most criticism …

Brandon Knight would be the first. He would be the first. No matter what we said, no matter how hard we pushed him he was out to prove to us that he could do whatever.”

On pushing PJ Washington and the results …

“So proud of PJ and what he’s done. Love the way that he’s approaching the game. And you’re right, Coach has been really focused on him playing to a certain standard. Last six games he was unbelievable to finish games, and Coach said, ‘You’re going to get rebounds, attempts, 60 percent of the time. That’s not who you are. You have to be a 90-percent attempt rebounder. Doesn’t mean you get them, but you have to be attempting 90 percent of the time.’ So as the world is giving him all this praise, Coach Cal is saying, ‘I need more.’ That’s what this is about and you see it in his play.”

On if Washington got to 90 percent if Calipari would ask for 95 percent …

“No question about it. If he gets to 100, it’s going to be 105.”

On Reid Travis defending Tennessee’s Grant Williams last Saturday …

“I think Williams has really tortured this conference with his physical play. He’s dominated this conference, not just this year, last year as well with physical play. Reid Travis – that fits right into his hands. He’s a very physical forward who has really learned to move his feet and be defensive here. It doesn’t always show up in the stats, what he means to this program, but I can only say this to you guys: I can’t imagine Reid Travis not on this team and what he’s meant. Imagine being at Stanford for the last two years, averaging 20 and eight and nine. You come here, the numbers aren’t the same, but your impact on the program is more because now you’re winning against the No. 1 team in the country. You’re beating teams, and you’re a major part of that, and it’s not centered around you getting 20. You’re playing with other great players. You’re learning to sacrifice, to be a great teammate and to play winning basketball.”

On Washington and Travis’ shot blocking ...

“No question. I think Coach Cal does a good job of sticking the needle in again when Nick is not in the game and the other two are of saying, ‘Look guys, no disrespect, but if you don’t block shots I’ve got to play Nick or I’ve got to play EJ. I love you, but I’m playing those two because we can’t allow offenses to get layups.’ “

On Hagans having to defend top guards in this league …

“I think it’s great experience for him. Again, you’re talking about a freshman who’s talented, but he’s playing against guys that have been in college for one or two or three years and we’re asking him to hold your own, if not dominate your position. It’s not easy against the best players in this conference. Again, he’s learning on the go. He’s getting better. He’s vital to the success of this team and we can’t allow him to come at his pace. His pace means we get beat at NCAA Tournament time where he goes through a three-minute lull or where his energy isn’t where it needs to be. His has to be 100 percent on and focused and disciplined and energetic because he’s vital.”

On Coach Cal shutting down the “underrated” chant last game …

“Don’t really have a thought on the chant, but I think that Coach Cal – we respect our opponents. Coach Cal really respects Coach (Rick) Barnes and that program. We’re Kentucky, we don’t have to do that. We don’t have to talk about a team being overrated. They do it to us, but we’re not going to do that to them. I thought it was a class act for Coach Cal to do that.”

Ashton Hagans

On Coach John Calipari saying he had “hit the wall” a few games back …

“(Against) Mississippi State, he said I wasn’t pressuring the ball like I used to. Then, LSU, I picked up two quick fouls, sat out and I didn’t have energy that night. So, he said I hit a wall, I guess that’s what he was talking about. Then, after practice one day, he came in, he showed us North Carolina tape, when I got a lot of steals and I was playing ‘D’ and aggressive. He was telling me how everybody needs to start picking me up and talking to me more and just bring the energy back to me and I’m going to be the same dude that I was.”

On sitting in a room with his teammates, watching highlights of just himself …

“He was just showing the videos, then he would stop after every steal. Then, everybody turned around and started looking at me. And (Calipari) was like ‘who was that’ and they would say ‘that’s Ashton with the braces,’ something like that. That’s all he was talking about.”

On what was going through his mind when watching himself on tape …

“I can’t do anything, really, because it’s all on tape. I was just sitting back there smiling because I knew I was messing up a lot earlier in the game. But I had talked to the coaching staff and got all of that situated. So I’m just trying to start getting these ‘W’s’ and moving on.”

On going up against so many good SEC point guards …

“That’s just coming to practice, going against Immanuel (Quickley). He’s helping me prepare for these matchups. He can shoot. He can drive. So, just going against him you know it’s going to be a dog fight at practice every day, just getting me prepared for these big-time games.”

On the things Coach Cal wants him to get back to doing …

“Just showing my speed, that I can get up and down the court. Playing defense, picking up 94 feet and getting in the lane and creating shots for others.”

On if Coach Kenny Payne has asked him about “pouting” …

“Actually, he just talked to me about that before I came out here. He said he told you all that we (have) been pouting. There’s not too much I can say about that. It happens sometimes when things don’t go your way. But you’re at a big boy stage right now, so you can’t be doing all of that. And that’s a lesson you have to learn from here on out and just move on.”

On if he has felt himself maturing since he’s been here …

“A lot. My parents are six hours away, so they’re not here, so I’ve got to keep my room clean, get up on time, get where I have to go, get to practice early. As it goes along, you’re just maturing.”

On if his parents have been sympathetic …

“I have talked to my dad about it, but he’s on the coaches’ side. So, there’s not too much I can say about it. He tells me ‘that’s why you went there, you’re on a big-time stage. Just stay focused, they’re not here for no reason. Big-time coaches are going to make you do what have to do’.”

On if Reid Travis has been helping the younger players …

“Big time. When the coaches are saying something to us, he’s the one that’s picking us up. Him and PJ (Washington), really, the veterans. It’s good to have these guys on our team. They’re playing really good right now, so that’s what we need. Once Nick (Richards) starts getting ready, he’s going to be a big factor to this team.”

Reid Travis

On how tough the last few games have been on him physically …

“It’s been tough. They’ve been battles for sure. We’ve played against some great teams with good post players. I’ve taken my challenge. We want to be physical. That’s just kind of the way we have to play. It’s been good though. I feel like I’ve been recovering and bouncing back pretty well.”

On his impact being greater at Kentucky because of the role he’s been playing as a leader …

“Yeah, I think he’s right. At the end of the day I’m going to do whatever I can to help us win games. Whether that’s setting that physical mentality, guarding guys down low, bringing leadership – whatever I can. For me it’s every day just trying to bring it, be the hardest worker that I can and just help us win games. It’s good to hear people say that they can see the impact. It’s something I’ve worked on every day.”

On how difficult the last stretch of the regular season is mentally …

“It’s tough, I mean, it’s a long season. Obviously, you start in the summer. You start building something special and you get to this point – but, this group everyone is excited about what we have on the horizon. For us it’s one game, one week at a time. So, I’d say there’s a lot of excitement. I think that’s what really helps everybody is that we’re all in here trying to get better, working hard every day. So you can really get over that mental fatigue when everyone has so much excitement about what’s about to come for us in the next couple of games, next couple of months.”

On how long it takes a team to get over a win like the one against Tennessee …

“I think it’s the same rule (as a loss), 24 hours. You learn from a loss, the same way from a win. You obviously feel good about it and enjoy it that night, but we were back in here Sunday preparing for the next game right after. (We’re) trying to get better as a team, looking at the ways we could have played a lot better in the game on Saturday. So, just understanding that it’s just one game. You’ve still got to keep on going. We still have some more conference games to play and our ultimate goal is towards next month. Just understanding that this is one game at a time.”

On how far he thinks he’s come on the defensive end and whether or not that was a point of emphasis in choosing to play at Kentucky …

“Defense was a big part of that as far as being able to guard smaller players if we do a switch or something like that. But, also in the post was being able to be reliable one-on-one, holding my ground without fouling and playing good ‘D.’ So, I feel like the last couple of weeks I’ve made strides as far as being more active, getting deflections, getting blocks and really just trying to guard my man a lot better. I’d say I’ve made big jumps in that. There’s still a lot more to go, but I’m pretty happy with the way that I’ve improved in that.”

On how he felt winning the matchup defensively with Tennessee’s Grant Williams

“It felt good. I felt that the coaches did a good job of putting a game plan in place because he’s a great player. It was going to be a by-committee type deal, a lot of double teams and guys being able to rotate well. For me, it was just trying to absorb the initial blow. Don’t let him get too many quick ones real easy at the basket because I knew that I had help coming from double teams and things like that. It was a collective team effort. I think that we had a great game plan in place.”