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Kenny Payne and Wildcats preview South Carolina

The Cats look to make it 4-0 in SEC play when they head to Columbia.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 22 CBS Sports Classic - North Carolina v Kentucky Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Kentucky Wildcats will be on the road Wednesday for an SEC clash with the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Kentucky enters the game at 12-3 overall and 3-0 in league play, while the Gamecocks are struggling amid an 8-7 start and are 0-2 in SEC play. Even so, this season has been full of wild upsets, several of which Kentucky was an unfortunate victim of, and Frank Martin led the Gamecocks to a huge upset of the Cats in 2017-18, something they’ll look to avoid Wednesday in Columbia.

Ahead of the game, associate head coach Kenny Payne, freshman guard Tyrese Maxey, and freshman forward Kahlil Whitney met with the media to preview the game while discussing the latest happenings with Kentucky Basketball.

Here is a recap of what they had to say via UK Athletics:

Associate Head Coach Kenny Payne

On his message to Kahlil Whitney …

“The first thing is his character. High, high-character kid. Works hard. Tries hard. And in situations like this where you try so hard and it’s just not quite working right, you have to take incremental progress. So, for him it’s being solid defensively. It’s fighting to get rebounds. It’s shooting the ball – whether it goes in or not – shooting the ball with confidence. Because when you – ‘I’ve gotta make this shot, I’ve gotta have something good, I’ve gotta, I’ve gotta’ – it doesn’t happen. It’s when you let go and relax and do it with confidence, and if it goes in great; if it don’t and you shot it with confidence and you executed, fine, we live with it. I feel confident that he’s going to fight through. I’m happy with the progress he’s made the last game, the last two games really where he shows signs that I’m going to lock down and be into it defensively. We just need a little more.”

On his assessment of Whitney also sounding a lot like EJ Montgomery

“With EJ, I would tell all of you guys that, recruiting EJ, EJ is a basketball player. And what happens is, guys sometimes want to rely on scoring the ball because that gets your name in the paper, that gets you notoriety. EJ Montgomery is a 6-10 great passer who is now saying, ‘I’ve gotta get a shot, I’ve gotta get a shot.’ You don’t have to get a shot. The shot will come to you. Drive the ball and throw lobs. Drive the ball and make passes, skip passes. Drive the ball and get fouled and make two free throws. Get an offensive rebound. He does the things that helps a team win and it’s not relied on by just shooting a basketball. But that’s really hard at a young age with that kind of pressure on you to deal with, ‘I really want to score the ball.’ Well, you’re a basketball player.’ I played for a coach in college who told me get 12 points, six rebounds and six assists. I didn’t know what that meant – I averaged 35 (points) in high school – but now as a grown man, I look back on it, he’s saying be a complete basketball player. Do the things that your instincts do naturally. Embrace that. And it’s not just centered around shooting the ball. If you take the emphasis off shooting, other things come up that you find that you can get confidence in. Then shooting becomes a non-issue.”

On if there was a moment where he saw Nick Richards was figuring it out …

“Great question. You probably won’t like the answer. I will tell you that Nick Richards had it figured out last year – as he walks by [media laughs as Richards walks past]. He had it figured out last year. Nick Richards from last year – and I’m going to go back to last year instead of talking about now – he’s not playing against an opponent. He stopped playing against the opponent as a freshman. Going into his sophomore year, he was playing against Nick. It’s mental. So, there’s nothing more skill wise (he needs). He can shoot it, he can catch the ball, he’s got a left hand, he’s got a right hand. One of the hardest things to do in this game as a post scorer: the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook. Well, I’m watching him and we’re working on running hooks across the lane. I’m seeing it with either hand. I’m seeing him become confident in shooting 15-, 18-footers. I’m seeing him get offensive rebounds. So, it’s mental. It’s not a moment. The moment happened last year.”

On how Richards handles Coach Calipari always raising the bar on him …

“Well, a couple things. One is Nick growing up was late to the game, so he didn’t start playing at a young age. Nick was a piece to the puzzle, not the puzzle. So, coming here and particularly this year, he’s a big piece to the puzzle. We need Nick Richards to be great. So, what happens is, most kids when success happens and he’s doing great, ‘I’ve arrived.’ No. We’re going not going to let you relax and think you’ve arrived. We’re going to—when you play good and we win, the next day at practice you’ve got a smile on your face, ‘Get your behind on that line.’ Like, we need you hungry every moment that you’re on the court. You will never relax. Not here.”

On if there is a line that could be crossed in terms of never feeling like he can please someone …

“There’s a lot of that. He says that to me quite frequently [media laughs]. But there are times when – I think a couple days ago – he was like, ‘I know you’re proud of me. Hug me.’ ‘Nick, I’m not hugging you.’ ‘KP, I know you’re proud of me. Please hug me.’ So, I hugged him [Payne and media laughs].”

On if there is something particular he likes about Richards’ game …

“I just like the fact that he’s putting it all together. He’s showing that he can shoot the ball. He’s always had a left-hand, right-hand jump hook. I would like to see him—the best post offensive players, they make contact with the defender. Nick has a tendency to, if he’s not feeling a defender in the post, he has a tendency to step out and the ball. That isn’t our goal is to catch the ball. Our goal is to catch the ball with a defender feeling him and rolling off him and make a shot.”

On South Carolina being a tough place to play …

“Well, I think the first thing is definitely the culture. Frank Martin is a tough coach, a tough Miami coach. His culture is physicality, toughness, rebounding, fighting, you’re not just going to walk into his arena and play basketball and it’s free flowing. He’s going to make the game hard. You’re going to get hit at times and you’ve gotta be ready for a fight. If you’re not, the aggressor wins. So, the records go out the window. It’s not about how many games they’ve lost or won. It’s about, do you have a mindset going in there and not being hit and being on your heels. You may have to hit first and not let the physicality take you out of what you’re doing.”

On Richards being feared as a rim protector the same way that Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein were …

“Well, you are correct. I think that what has happened with Nick, what we all have seen, is when he’s in foul trouble in the first half, we’re probably going to struggle a little bit. When he’s playing and he’s not in foul trouble, that rim protection whether he blocks the shot or not, they’re a little hesitant about going in there. So, we need him playing without fouling and he’s vital in those areas. The other piece to it is, we teach here that you have to be able to, as a big man, be versatile defensively. You have to move your feet. That’s EJ. That’s Nate (Sestina). That’s Nick Richards. All of them. We want them to be able to switch off ball screens, to be able to play on the perimeter and do it with confidence. Not the old school, ‘Well, the only time I’m going to defend is when the ball is in the post.’ No. We need you to move your feet and guard guards. That’s your value to this team. That adds value to you personally. So, it’s important for Nick to continue to build on that without getting in foul trouble because his shot blocking is important.”

On how much satisfaction he can take from Richards’ improvement …

“Well, I’ll tell you that it reminds me a little bit of Willie, Willie Cauley-Stein, and the fact that year one he was really good. Nick probably wasn’t as good. And when I say good (I mean) defensively. Willie was off the charts feet wise. He could move his feet with anybody. Year two, Willie came in and said at the beginning of the year, ‘KP, I think I want to leave at the end of this year.’ ‘Willie. You can’t leave here just being one-dimensional. You have to have a confidence that you can play some kind of offense.’ Well that was in November. We leave to go to the NCAA Tournament and there’s a note on my wall. Well, the wall is closed. ‘I’m coming back for year three because of what you said in November.’ So that transformation to his junior year, he was the sixth pick in the draft. So, when I think about Nick, I think about how much he’s concurred mentally but how far he has to go as well. So, yeah, I’m pleased. But by no stretch of the imagination has Nick Richards reached how good he can be. He still has a lot of blocks, mentally, that he has to overcome. But a 7-footer that runs like that, that has the ability to shoot the ball like that, that jumps elbows at the top of the square, he has physical gifts that are off the charts. His only issue is how he perceives those physical gifts. It’s not skill wise. There’s a lot left in him.”

On Johnny Juzang’s status …

“Johnny is getting better. I think he started practice a couple of days ago. He’s been doing well. Got to work him back into the rotation and see where he helps us. It starts with defense. I know everybody wants to talk about his shooting and he’s known as a shooter, but we need guys that can defend and get us stops.”

On what the staff needs to do to keep the team humble and hungry …

“Great question. I think Ashton (Hagans) is another example where everybody is talking about national defensive player of the year. Well, from our standpoint, from Coach’s standpoint, it’s not close. He’s not as disciplined as he needs to be to be the best defender in the United States in college basketball. He’s not close. So, we’re on him about that. Like, you’re getting these accolades for doing something that we know, we work with you every day, there’s more. Give it to us. Focus on it because your livelihood depends on it and our livelihood depends on your disciple defensively. Knowing your assignments, doing your assignments. That would be the best way to answer your question.”

On the health of the team …

“I think we’ve been through a lot of that earlier with Ashton, Nate, we had guys – EJ. We’ve had guys throughout the beginning part of the season have dealt with that a little bit. I hope and I pray that we don’t have no more.”

#3, Tyrese Maxey, Fr., G

On going on the road to play South Carolina …

“It should be fun. It should be fun. The veterans said that it’s going to be a hard place to play. Said they’re going to be very competitive, very physical, and I just can’t wait for the moment.”

On UK’s three guards …

“Coach always says he has three playmakers on the court when we’re on the court. I feel like if we just keep feeding off of each other and reading off each other then we’ll be doing good, getting other guys shots and things like that.”

On Ashton Hagans getting nine rebounds last game …

“Ashton is a junkyard dog, man. He’ll do whatever Coach needs him to do. If it’s playing defense--like that game he needed to go get rebounds and that’s one thing that all of us guards and all of us on this whole team has to take on the identity of going to get rebounds because we have to go get them.”

On 3-point shots starting to fall …

“It’s easier now just knowing where we’re going to get those shots and just being more comfortable with your teammates. Coach Cal always says he plays for March. He doesn’t play for November and December. Even now, January. We’re just trying to keep building on this momentum.”

On keeping their composure at Georgia …

“I think it’s a testament to our coach. I heard that the team always takes on the identity of the coach. He was very calm, cool and collected when we walked into the locker room (at halftime). He just told us to go out there and compete. He didn’t feel like we were competing as hard as we could and we felt the same way. We just rallied as a team. Our vets stood up, talked, I talked a little bit – I’m not a vet, I’m a youngin’ – and then we just went out and executed.”

On why road games are difficult …

“It’s hard. You’re going into a gym that you’ve never played in unless you’re a veteran, but you only play in there once or twice. But it’s difficult. For the freshmen, it was our first true road game so it’s our first time being in the gym with all opposing fans. Even on neutral sites, most of the gym is filled with Big Blue Nation. We went over there and it’s all red, so it’s just difficult. It’s hard to hear your coach when he’s talking to you and you just have to go out there and fight and be as one unit.”

On Coach Cal getting ejected at South Carolina and the environment …

“He talked about it yesterday. He talked about it yesterday, how he got tossed there. The vets say it’s going to be hard, but every road game is hard. You gotta go out there and fight as one unit and be together.”

On his mindset through struggles and now playing better …

“I did struggle for a little bit, but I never wavered from the work. I always put in the work – got up early in the morning, stayed in late – and knew that it would come back to me. I’m just glad my teammates stuck with me.”

#2, Kahlil Whitney, Fr., F

On staying positive during his current slump …

“I just know my journey. I’ve put a lot of work in the gym here and it’s a blessing to be here so I’m forever going to keep a smile on my face and keep positive energy.”

On how he expected the season to go when he first came to Kentucky …

“There were definitely going to be some ups and downs no matter what situations you’re in. I definitely felt like I put in enough work and now I’m just waiting for everything to click.”

On how much he is able to strip all distractions away and focus on one thing at a time in order to be a great defender …

“That’s definitely my main concern. Just focusing more on defensive rebounding and just being that player that my team needs me to be.”

On his high school coach talking about his defense and his style of defensive play …

“I take pride in defense, so I want to be that guy that guards the opposing team’s best player and slow him down and just get him going.”

On how he avoids putting so much pressure on himself …

“Just knowing that I have worked all my life for this. I’ve been working since I was 7 years old. When you know you’ve put in enough work to be in the situation you’re in, there really isn’t much pressure.”

On which teammates have helped him with his development …

“We’re a pretty close group. Tyrese (Maxey) is like my best friend. Keion Brooks, you know we talk all the time and crack jokes. If you focus too much on it, it will get to you. You can’t let this basketball stuff get to you like that. You have to be even keeled with everything. You know, you have to have a good social life and keep a smile on your face.”

On how easy it is to maintain a social life and basketball balance …

“It’s not hard for me because I talk to my family every day. I’m a church-going guy, come from a church-going family so it’s kind of easy for me just keeping God first.”

On what Nick (Richards) and EJ (Montgomery) have told him …

“Nick has been here for three years and EJ has been here for two. They’ve just said that there are going to be ups and downs. They know more than anybody and I’ve already made it through the toughest situations in my life and I know a lot of you guys probably think this is driving me crazy and really affecting me, but it’s really not. I’m staying in the gym and trying to make myself better.”