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Tony Barbee & Wildcats talk Georgia, EJ’s progression, zone defense & more

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Kentucky needs EJ to step up to become a true title contender.

Jamie Boggs - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are set to host the Georgia Bulldogs on Tuesday in the second meeting between the two programs.

Kentucky won the first matchup in Athens after trailing by eight in the second half before ending the game on a 28-14 run. Star freshman Anthony Edwards racked up 23 points for the Dawgs, while the Wildcats got 62 combined points from Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley.

Ahead of Tuesday’s matchup, assistant coach Tony Barbee and select players met with the media to preview the game while also discussing the latest happenings with the team.

Among the topics discussed was the progression of EJ Montgomery, who has yet to make his mark on this team, but Barbee believes the sophomore made a big impact defensively in the win at Arkansas.

“Well, he’s on that same progression as Nick, so to speak. But it went unnoticed in that game how good of a job EJ did on 33 (Jimmy Whitt Jr.).

“You’re not going to get a lot of credit externally about how good you are defensively – it’s usually highlight, the offensive plays that get the credit – but EJ deserves a lot of credit in what happened in that Arkansas game in what he was able to do to 33.”

Here is a recap of everything Barbee and the Cats had to say via UK Athletics:

Tony Barbee

On games coming to last five minutes to win and if that benefits them in the long run …

“It’s a good thing because this is a competitive sport. You’re fortunate when you can blow somebody out, but that’s not going to happen at the level that we’re playing at in this conference. One of the best in the country, if not the best. You’re going to have games that go down to the wire and then, in the season when there’s a lot of parity all across the country and there’s not a lot of separation from what might be the top and the bottom, you’re going to have a lot of close games. It’s good that we’re getting this experience, and we got quite a bit of it in the nonconference schedule. We’ve learned and we’ve grown from it. Our young guys are a little more comfortable in those situations where it is a nip-and-tuck game at this level.”

On what is the biggest thing they’ve learned about the guys in close games …

“Just their will to win, their competitive spirit. We’ve got a group that hates to lose, and it doesn’t mean you’re going to win every game. But these guys are going to battle, scrap and fight. And if you lose a game, it’s only because we ran out of time, not because we gave up or stopped trying. That makes a special group when you’ve got talented guys like we do that care about winning and losing.”

On having good guards …

“That’s what college basketball is. You can have some mediocre bigs across your frontline, but if you’ve got good guard play, you’ve got a chance. Fortunately for us, we’ve got both. We’ve got good bigs, we’ve got good guards, we’ve got good wings. We’ve got a little bit of everything. When you’ve got the experience, not only good players, but especially with the experience that we’ve got from Ashton (Hagans) and Immanuel (Quickley), when you’ve got that kind of talent and experience, it’s hard for a lot of teams to handle.”

On if Quickley has become the guy who can make the big shot …

“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys. I think you’ve got Ashton who wants that shot and the ball. You’ve got Tyrese (Maxey) that wants that shot and the ball. You’ve got Immanuel who wants that shot and the ball. So, it becomes hard on the other team to say, ‘Alright, you take this guy out late in the game and they’re in trouble.’ You can’t do that against us because we’ve got a plethora of guys who want that ball in a last-minute situation.”

On the amount of fouls called the last week …

“We did a lot of fouling. We did a lot of fouling. It’s something we work on. One thing we try to do is make a very competitive practice. Coach wants practices to be harder than the game. You’ve guys have heard it forever, and obviously I’ve heard it from him forever: When you are that competitive, you’re fighting. They’re brothers and they’re teammates, but they’re fighting for their opportunities. Our guys are fighting for their livelihoods, so in practice it’s competitive. But, the one thing we try to limit is the grab and the holding and the fouling because that then translates. What you do in practice is what you’re going to do in the game. We’ve got to be more conscious of what we do with our hands on defense. We’re getting our hands on post players, drivers of the basketball too often and it’s too easy for our officials to see and call.”

On using zone at certain points in the game …

“I can only speak since I’ve been here, but we’ve worked on the zone every year since I’ve been here. I know Coach is–even when I played for him, we had a zone we would work on for just in case. Obviously, he’s a man-to-man basketball coach. He likes the accountability that comes with man-to-man, but he’s always been prepared with the zone in case you need it for a variety of reasons. Obviously, we needed it last game because of the foul trouble, especially with Ashton having those four fouls and the way they were driving the ball. We could not afford to have Ashton foul out of that game, and that’s probably what would’ve happened if we would have stayed in the man.”

On if Calipari liked how the zone worked …

“He’s always been – as long as I’ve been with him and played for him and worked for him – he’s always been willing to go to the zone in kind of an emergency situation. He’s going to go with the man-to-man at all costs until he sees that emergency situation. The last game against Arkansas, we came across one of those.”

On what Ashton Hagans means to this team …

“We’ve got interchangeable parts, but if there’s one guy who would be indispensable it would be him just because of how disruptive he is on the defensive end of the floor for the other team’s offense, how much he means to our offense and his ability to make shots for himself, but probably more importantly how easy he makes the game sometimes for the other guys on the floor. Whether that’s getting Tyrese or Immanuel open shots, Johnny (Juzang) open shots. Getting Keion (Brooks Jr.) and Khalil (Whitney) open shots. Or then finding Nick (Richards) and EJ (Montgomery) for lobs. Nick (Sestina) open shots. We don’t have a lot of guys like him that see the game that way with the ball in their hands where they can create one-on-one and beat their man, and then has the vision to see the other nine guys on the floor. That’s a special attribute he has.”

On Johnny Juzang rebounding …

“Absolutely. That’s why he got the minutes he got the last game based on what he did at South Carolina, getting those five rebounds in very limited minutes. Unfortunately for Johnny he got sick. Now he’s back healthy and he’s earning his right to play. That’s one of things you’ve always had to do for Coach is you’ve had to earn the right. Nothing’s ever been given for him, and Johnny’s starting to earn the right to get more minutes.”

On if Hagans gets more juiced played against his home-state school, Georgia, and if they have to talk to him about that …

“No. No, that’s part of his edge. He’s got a competitive spirit like no other regardless of who we play. He’s always going to come on the floor with that same edge. And I don’t think it’s any different just because it’s Georgia, but obviously being from there, it’s not going to raise him any higher than he already gets on that court.”

On what was going through his head when Calipari got tossed at Arkansas …

“I really don’t remember. I don’t’ remember. It was just such an emotional moment. They were making a run. The whistles might not have been going our way at that time and it seemed like the situation just got a little out of hand.”

On if Calipari has come to the realization that the team was fouling a lot …

“I don’t know. You would have to ask him. Nice try.”

On if there is any difference between the Georgia team they played two weeks ago and the one they will play tomorrow …

“Not really. They’re doing—like all of us, they evolve through the course of a season. They’re no different when you watch them play. They’re doing some different things on defense, they’re doing some different things on offense, but obviously with (Anthony) Edwards on the floor, he makes them different because they’ve got a guy who’s capable for 40 at any moment, so you’ve got to pay a lot of attention to him, but then they’re dangerous in other places. I mean, (Rayshaun) Hammonds is one of the best big guys in the league. (Tyreee) Crump is an experienced guard that makes shots, that can make multiple 3s in a game. The (Sahvir) Wheeler kid has made a big difference. He’s really gotten comfortable now on this level and his ability to affect the game with his speed. He bothered us the first time down at Georgia. So, they present a lot of different challenges, but like every team this time of the year, you’re evolving constantly.”

On what makes Edwards so productive …

“He can score on all three levels efficiently. He can pull up from 30 bringing the ball up the floor and make it at a high percentage. He can isolate you going either direction – left hand, right hand – and make hard shots look really easy. Obviously, we’ve had a bunch of those guys over the years here that, they’re special players for that reason. They make the game look easy. And the game becomes easy for him. They’re doing a lot of stuff with Edwards to get him in the post because he is such a physical, strong, athletic guard who can create a lot of mismatches on that block. And he’s a good passer. He’s one of those guys who demands a lot of attention when you prepare to play them.”

On if it was Quickley who guarded Edwards the first game …

“Everybody did. Immanuel did, Tyrese did, Quickley did, Ash did, so everybody. Kahil did. Everybody was on him. You don’t want to give him a steady diet of one guy because he can figure that out pretty easy and that’s what a special player does.”

On how they exploit playing against some smaller teams recently …

“There’s some things we’ve been working on. We’ve worked on it for switching defenses, teams with smaller players. We tried to take advantage of that against Arkansas and I think you saw some of that late. We got Nick to the foul line late in the game where we were exploiting when they tried to switch smaller matches up on him. So, just some things we’re going to keep working on.”

On if two years ago he could have imagined drawing up plays for Richards on the road in a crazy environment …

“[Laughs]. No, because he probably wasn’t in the game at that point. But he’s evolved. He’s a totally different person. He’s a totally different player. And it’s neat to see it come together for Nick at this point. It’s obviously good for us. Everybody—I’ve always said it: We’ve had so many uncommon freshmen here that made the game look easy, and Nick is a typical player who has evolved from his freshman year, his sophomore year, now as a junior year. You just don’t see that very often, especially around here. Everybody doesn’t come in here ready-made, ready to hit the road and ready to dominate. And because he was a late starter to the game anyway coming to basketball until he was 13, 14, 15, it hasn’t been natural for him, but he’s worked hard, he’s studied hard and now he’s reaping the awards – and so are we.”

On the next step for EJ Montgomery …

“Well, he’s on that same progression as Nick, so to speak. But it went unnoticed in that game how good of a job EJ did on 33 (Jimmy Whitt Jr.). I think the game before he might have had 30, 30-something points coming in the game before our game. And EJ single-handedly made the game difficult on him because of his size and his ability to move the feet. You’re not going to get a lot of credit externally about how good you are defensively – it’s usually highlight, the offensive plays that get the credit – but EJ deserves a lot of credit in what happened in that Arkansas game in what he was able to do to 33.”

On if emphasizing toughness and being physical is a contributing factor to the recent uptick in fouls …

“Yeah, it’s the nature of our practices. We’ve had a lot of competitive teams around here with competitive individuals and this year is no different. We’ve got to try to regulate it in practice so it doesn’t carry over. That competitive spirit kind of goes over the top sometimes because I want to stop my guy and that turns into fouling. And so, the more we can do that in practice the better we will become defensively even though we are one of the elite defensive teams in the country.”

#12, Keion Brooks Jr., Fr., F

On the win at Arkansas …

“You know, we had to come together after Coach Cal being thrown out of the game. We knew we had to come together as a team and not let that affect us. We took it in a positive direction, picking up the lead and going up about 10 points after he was thrown out. We just tried to stick together, listen to the coaching staff, listen to our teammates and we got the job done.”

On his individual play at Arkansas

“I just knew I was in a position where the team was going to have to rely on me to do some things, rebound the ball, score inside, get some stops and play great defense, so I just tried to step up to the challenge and I was able to do that and we came out with a W.”

On if he thinks his game is evolving …

“Yeah, I’ve just been relying on my training, my work ethic, the faith I have in God to push me through everything I’m going through. It’s not always easy, but I know I’m going to push through it and fight through it. So, the game has been coming a little bit easier to me. I’ve just got to keep getting better and keep progressing.”

On his conversation with associate head coach Kenny Payne during the Arkansas game …

“It was real quick and short in the huddle during the timeout. He just said he’s going to let me play through some mistakes, make me grow up, being out there in a tough environment on the road, playing against a good team, Arkansas, with Coach Cal gone. He was just letting me know, we’re going to ride with you no matter what happens and you’re going to learn from whatever happens on the floor. Gratefully, I did some good things.”

On what makes Georgia difficult to play against …

“They have some very good sets that they run. They’re well-coached, obviously, and they have some players that, one-on-one, can break you down and cause trouble in the lane.”

On how good it will feel to play at home again after two road games …

“It will feel real good because the last one was a very hostile environment. But it was fun, also, to play on the road, get away and just rely on each other the whole time. But it should be fun to get back into Rupp and get stuff done.”

On if the team will do anything different to slow down Georgia’s Anthony Edwards …

“I can’t give away our secrets. We’re going to throw some different things at him that he didn’t see the first game, just try to make it more difficult on him.”

On whether Saturday’s performance helped his confidence …

“Yeah, it did. Especially my teammates continuing to believe in me to get things done. My teammates and coaching staff, their faith in me has never waned or faltered throughout this whole process, even when I was struggling. Just, for them to keep believing in me, and I finally have a good game out of it, it feels good.”

#0, Ashton Hagans, So., G

On facing his home-state school again …

“We played them one time already. It was a good game. It was good to be back at home, but now we’re back in Lexington playing them. It’s the same game plan. We just go out there and play our game, stick together and try to get the win.”

On whether they will make defensive adjustments against Anthony Edwards …

“Not at all. Stick to the same game plan that we stuck to the first time. Just have him rattled a little bit, try to make him make a basketball play, put it on the floor, things like that. And just play together.”

On Calipari challenging him to improve …

“It’s him trying to just coach me. Just make me stay on the page that I’m doing, not get the big head or (anything) like that. He just wants the best for me, not too much. He says I’m undisciplined, but I don’t really see it like that. He’s the GOAT (greatest of all time) and it’s coming from him, so obviously it’s something that I need to work on. It just takes time and I’m just growing into it.”

On needing to make better decisions …

“On offense and defense, it’s a lot of things that I need to work on. It, like I said, just takes time. We got a long season. Just get better as the season goes along and keep working.”

On whether all the shots he took early at Georgia were a product of being excited to play …

“It was. I was at home. I had a lot of people there, so it was like, dang, let me try to do something for the fam. But I came out the second half, slowed it down a little bit. I (am not) going to be doing any of that tomorrow. I’m going to sticking to the game plan, getting my teammates involved, stuff like that. I’m just trying to come out there and get the win.”

On why his decisions were sharper at the end of the Arkansas game …

“I think it was because I was so locked in with the calls we were getting. Coach got ejected, things like that, and the other coaches had to step up and show what they do behind the scenes. I think they did a good job on that, coached us to win and we just went out there and played hard.”

On how good it felt to quiet the fans at Arkansas …

“It was a good thing that we could quiet them down. They were very loud. They were loud when we got off the bus to go to our pregame shootaround, so we expected it. We just tried to come out and stick together.”

On Calipari calling him a “tough hombre” …

“I think he really just knows that no matter what I’m going to go out there and fight against whoever it is, with whoever it is. Whatever goes down, I’m behind anybody.”

On why he is that way …

“I would just say the way my family (is), the way I grew up. My parents, they always were fighters. I guess that’s how I’m riding.”