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John Calipari talks Vandy, empowerment, EJ Montgomery & more

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Calipari is empowering his players, and EJ continues to make big strides.

Calipari Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are now 16-4 and 6-1 in SEC play following a 71-62 win over Vanderbilt.

While the final score may suggest a comfortable win for the Cats, it was anything but, as the hot-shooting Dores took a 35-28 lead at halftime. One of the worst shooting teams from deep in college basketball, Vanderbilt would hit seven of their first 16 three-point attempts to help control the game for much of the first 30 minutes.

However, the Cats came alive and clamped down on defense, as the Dores would hit just two of their next 10 triples while UK finished the game on a 32-15 run en route to a 71-61 victory.

After the game, head coach John Calipari met with the media to recap the game. One of the big talking points was how Calipari continues to empower his players and make this their team.

“Where we became empowered, and it became a team driven by players instead of me and them looking — they’re down at half and they come in at halftime looking for me to give them a bailout. And I’m, like, ‘Hey, guys, you didn’t play hard. Nothing else. If you want to win, talk to each other.’ So, having a team empowered this early, here at Kentucky, is unusual. It is unusual.”

In addition, Cal made sure to praise EJ Montgomery, who has been practicing “at an all-time high” in recent weeks, and it’s led to improved play from the sophomore, who scored nine points on 4/5 shooting and grabbed four rebounds.

Here is a recap of everything Cal had to say via UK Athletics:

Q. E.J. (Montgomery) seems to be starting to figure things out a little bit. What’s he doing better? What’s next for him to get to where he needs to be?

JOHN CALIPARI: He finished first in a bunch of the runs. He’s starting to get in better shape. See, that conditioning is really hard, and it hurts, but that’s how you build the stamina to build your confidence, so you don’t let go of the rope and you don’t surrender. You just keep fighting. The other guy that finished first for the first time this year in the runs was Tyrese (Maxey). He outran Immanuel (Quickley). He told on himself. He’s finishing in the middle all year. Why would you have ever finished in the middle if you could have finished first? He told on himself. Now, he still had lapses in this game, but he still was more aggressive, and he made some plays, things that he hadn’t been doing.

And then I had to ask, you know, what was today? What did you learn about my team when you watched this game? Oh, this is great when I ask you guys questions because you really don’t know the game, so I’m going to ask you again. What would you, what did you learn about my team? You need Nick (Richards). Come on now. We have one out of a hundred. It’s really good, it’s a good percentage. You need Nick (Richards). And what happens is he gets in foul trouble on dumb fouls. You can’t do that to us. We need you on the court. He is in unbelievable condition. The difference in the second half — and now I got to tell you, this is what’s great about a player-driven team. What did we do at the end that you said, wow, that’s pretty good stuff? Did anybody watch the game by the way? The lob? The lob? We were going to run a play and Immanuel said, let me set the back screen, put the other guy down. Player-driven team. I said, all right, let’s do it. So, when we got the first lob, did you see him point to me? And you thought it was me that did it, like, Great job, Coach. No, he was pointing. I told you. And then we ran it three times and dunk, dunk, dunk. That was Immanuel Quickley. That was not me. And that’s where I want this to go. Why do you think I didn’t go crazy in the first half? And I didn’t in the locker room either. It’s their team. It’s your team. You want to lose? Go ahead. It’s your team. I’m fine. It’s your team. If you play harder and put it on them a little bit and make them make tough plays, you’ll get back in it. You’ll be fine. If you choose not to — now, one of the assistants went crazy, but I didn’t. And again, it’s, you know, this is a hard game and I knew they would make shots. Now, you understand, their last three games they didn’t, and I said it, they would make shots today. And they did in that first half and even some in the second half. Made threes and Jerry (Stackhouse) did a great job of having them play in a way that affected us. But we, they played harder than we played in the first half. So, you, you’re losing the half. Second half, I thought we competed pretty good.

Q. To follow up, is there any significance, you said Immanuel (Quickley) wanted to set the back screen. A lot earlier in the season Immanuel (Quickley) came to you and said, Let me take the last shot. Is there a difference there in the growth?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, let me just say this. We put him in — we let him — we played through him and Nick (Richards), and then what was happening is they kind of leave Tyrese (Maxey) and he makes plays. But, no, I just, I want them to understand this is their team. If they have any suggestions, bring it. Because I — if it’s their suggestion, I’m not saying no. We’ll go with it. Like, let’s go. You all agree? All right let’s go. Make it happen. The press, they liked it. I said, How did you like it? We worked on it a little bit. Now we got to get better at it. They liked it. It just changed up the game a little bit.

Q. For a team that has older guys than you normally do, is it more or less surprising that it seems to play to the level of competition both ways, good and bad, sometimes?

JOHN CALIPARI: They’re not a bad team. I’m telling you what happened. If you watched all their tapes, one thing happened, they missed a ton of threes. They were shooting 15 percent from the three-point line the last five games. Well, guess what? You’re not going to win then. Everything else they did, the way they defended, the way they played, the stuff they ran, they just missed shots. Did they miss them today? Does that surprise you? No. They’re going to make them against us. Teams that, they had — you know, it’s just what happens, and I expected it. But it’s, one of the things, one of the staff was mad at halftime. I said, Look, they’re not machines. They’re going to have games like this. We got to figure out how we get through the game. And they weren’t great.

Q. You’ve kind of made no secret of leaning on Tyrese (Maxey) because you know you’re going to need him down the stretch and you talked about, I’m going to keep going at you and if we lose this, you know, we’ll deal with it, but how have you managed with him in particular the balance between —

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, it’s been harder on him, because, look, things that I’ve done in the past, I’ll go to, but sometimes they don’t work and I got to get away. So, at Texas A&M I did. I just said, We’re going at you and if you want to win the game, you will, and if we lose it, I’m fine. So, he went turnover, missed shot, turnover, gave up a three, and I said, You know what? Let’s win this game. And then I went away from him. But now I don’t want a cop out. I don’t want you to make an excuse. I don’t want — I want you to say, All right, I’m not right, right now. I used to get on Karl Towns. And if I said to the team, Who do I get on harder than anybody? They would point to Karl (Towns). You ready? And Karl (Towns) would go like this (Raises arms in the air celebrating). Two days ago, I said, Who am I getting on harder than anybody right now? They said, Tyrese (Maxey). And they all pointed to Tyrese (Maxey). And you know what he did? (Looking down at table sadly.) Kids are all different, but I do know this. If a guy that cares about you, that loves you is doing everything he can to help you for your future and what you’re doing, you personally, and you can’t take the coaching or the aggressiveness, you probably are not ready. The guy that loves you, that’s going to do whatever he can to help you, will put you in great position, is going to — and that one bothers you, you’re not ready. But I think today was a big step. Now, I’m going to say it again. He finished first. Here’s the other thing he did. So, all season in practice when I put him against Ashton (Hagans), Ashton (Hagans) will demoralize you. He will demoralize you. Like, he’ll go and play so hard that you just want to stop, Let me go, and I got a hamstring. Two days ago, he went right at Ashton (Hagans), defensively went into his grill and scored on him and did stuff. And I’m like, Where has this been? Why have you settled for less than this if this is who you can be? I’m going to tell you why. It’s really hard. It’s really hard. It’s much easier to finish in the middle of the pack, let a guy dominate you and think it’s okay. He’s learning. He’s young. He’s a young kid. And the biggest thing, like I said, I love him to death. I think he’s, he’s good right now, but I think he’s not even touched where he’s going to be in another month. If he stays on this path and accepts where he is, that it’s because of him, no one else. And I think he does.

Q. Back around Christmas or before you said, I’ve got to figure this team out. Talking about the ownership element, is this team where you thought it would be right now or is it ahead of schedule? Behind?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, the only thing I would tell you that the officials that threw me out at Arkansas I need to kiss them on the lips, because they did us a huge favor. Where we became empowered and it became a team driven by players instead of me and them looking — they’re down at half and they come in at halftime looking for me to give them a bailout. And I’m, like, Hey, guys, you didn’t play hard. Nothing else. If you want to win, talk to each other. So, but having a team empowered this early, here at Kentucky, is unusual. It is unusual. Now, we probably, people are acting like, well, you got all these veterans. A sophomore here is like a grad student somewhere else. So now we got all these veteran guys and they’re playing pretty good. Biggest thing have I is I play with three point guards. I got three point guards on the court at any time. And they’re kind of big and they guard, and they can score, and they can interchange. I mean, it’s an advantage. But what did you learn about the game today?

Q. We need Nick (Richards).

JOHN CALIPARI: You need Nick (Richards). You guys learn. Very coachable.

Q. Ashton has been turning the ball over lately, what do you see there?

JOHN CALIPARI: He just gets sloppy. I mean, make the easiest play can you make. He had four at halftime. I don’t know what he ended up with. He had one in the second half, yeah. He had four in the first half, which were, What are you doing? Like the pass he threw long, he could have thrown it to Immanuel (Quickley) who could have thrown it up the court and he just threw it into the guy’s arms. What are you doing? But let me tell you, it’s hard when a kid fights like he fights and plays as hard as he plays and pressures and does things, it’s hard to, you know, like I got to call him over and say, Come on, I know you’re playing hard but that’s — I’m trying to promote him as the best point guard in the country because I really believe it. Can’t have five turnovers though. Have two. Have two.