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Joel Justus & Wildcats talk Georgia, Ashton Hagans, Anthony Edwards & more

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Tuesday will mark the first true road test for the young (and injured) Wildcats.

Joel Justus Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats’ first road game comes Tuesday night when they face the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens.

Ahead of the game, assistant coach Joel Justus met with the media to preview the matchup while discussion the state of the Wildcats. That includes the latest on point guard Ashton Hagans, who is questionable to play due to an ankle injury.

The other big talking point was Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards, someone UK recruiting heavily in the 2019 class, and he’s already established himself as one of the best in college hoops, as well as a top-three selection in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Fun fact: Keion Brooks says he’s been playing against Edwards since about the third or fourth grade, so perhaps that UK freshman can give his team a little more insight into how to slow down the dynamic scorer.

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

Joel Justus

On Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks Jr. and EJ Montgomery being pivotal pieces ...

“I think our focus is on every individual that’s here. You know, it’s a process. Each guy is on their own kind of path, and that never wavers when you’re in our shoes as an assistant coach. When you make a commitment to a kid and to a family that you’re going to work with them from the day that they’re here, both on the physical and mental, and sometimes with young kids the mental is more important than the physical. They need confidence, and you know, Cal has talked about that. Oftentimes you build your confidence by getting in the gym, and I think that as a staff we’re pleased with where those guys are right now in terms of their commitment to improving and becoming their best version. When it’s their time to break through, it’ll be their time. Our staff, much like probably everybody in the Big Blue Nation, wants it to be yesterday, but hey, you know, we got to hope that it’s Tuesday night.”

On Nick Richards proving that everyone is on their own timeline …

“I mean, Nick is a guy that has worked since he’s been here, and I think that Nick has not arrived by any means. Nick’s played well in the last couple of games, and I think if Nick was answering that question, he would say that he’s got a ways to go. That’s not a slight towards Nick or anything. It’s a fact of our guys come here to become their best version and your best version has always got to be how good can I be today and then what do I need to get better at tomorrow. Nick’s had that approach. I think he’s gained confidence off of some good games, and I think that for us we just got to continue to coach him up and put him in the positions where he can be best used for us and for him to continue to gain confidence.”

On Ashton Hagan’s status …

“I think it’s day-to-day. You know, we had a very cerebral day yesterday after the game that we played Saturday. We came back yesterday, watched film like we always do and had some more of a scripting walkthrough day. We’ll see where he is today, but I think for us, it’s day-to-day. At this time of the season everybody is starting to get a little bit banged up, so that’s not any different than any of the other 13 guys on our roster.”

On if Hagans will practice today …

“I don’t know. I imagine he will, but you never know with what the medical folks say. I know our guys love to practice, and I think that’s why our team is getting better, so I think they’re going to be wanting to practice as much as they can just like they want to play.”

On what makes Georgia’s Anthony Edwards so good …

“The No. 1 thing is he has a tremendous package of gifts that are God given. I think he’s a young man that’s a hard-working guy that plays to his strengths. When you have talent, the best thing that you can do is to do what you do well and do it often.”

On Immanuel Quickley being looked at as a stopper on defense …

“I think the one thing that Cal talks about on the defensive end and our staff really tries to hit on is defensive confidence. That’s something that travels. It should carry over into postseason. It should go from freshman to sophomore to junior to senior, and I think that’s something we teach here a lot is how to do I build my defensive confidence. If I’m not making shots, if I’m not playing extremely well or as well as I would think on the offensive end, your defense is based off of your effort. It’s based off of your preparation, and Immanuel is a guy who in his second year has stepped up. He’s a guy that has paid greater attention to multiple positions in our walkthroughs, and I think that’s what you want and you need out of these veteran guys. These being Nick, EJ, Ashton, Immanuel and obviously you throw Nate Sestina in that mix. Your veteran guys have got to help you win games at this time of year and drag your younger guys along until they breakthrough.”

On Riley Welch’s coaching future …

“I think our guys, you know, anyone that comes here loves basketball. It’s a tough place to be. It’s a tough place to work if you don’t love basketball, and it’s something we talk about a lot in the recruiting process with the five-star guys, and it’s something that we have to offer to guys like a Jonny David or now a Riley Welch. It’s a great opportunity to be coached by a hall-of-fame coach like Cal and to work with a great staff, minus myself. But you know, Kenny (Payne) and Tony (Barbee) are guys that have accomplished so much in their careers, and Riley is an important part of our team. Just like Tyrese Maxey or Immanuel Quickley or Ashton Hagans, I think he’s a guy that we’re excited and blessed to have around.”

On if there were signs of Nick Richards’ breaking through at practice over the last few weeks …

“I mean, I think Nick’s the kind of guy who pounds the rock every day. It’s a story, you know, that there’s a rock in front of your front door and you hit it once a day, twice day. Some days you hit it maybe five times and eventually one day it breaks into a thousand pieces and you’re able to get through. Did the rock break on that one day or did it break over time? I think that’s Nick Richards. He’s a guy who has pounded the rock since he got here, in the weight room, taking care of his body, his diet and obviously on the court. He’s a guy who has high expectations for himself and we have high expectations for him. So, I don’t think it’s a surprise, but I think it definitely sets the bar a little higher now.”

On if practice is different preparing for a road game vs. a home game …

“No, I think that we have a rhythm of practice whether it be, like I said after a game, or now a day before a game. I think for us, it’s a time to make sure that you’re sure of what you’re wanting to run. Our game plan is further along today than it was yesterday. I think for our young guys they now understand, after being in one league game, how good the players are and they understand how good the other team is going to be. Now going into a hostile environment, that it will be like down there, you’ve got to hope that they’re focused and what they can control they control. That’s their preparation, their sleep and their mental approach to the next 24, 48 hours.”

On Hagans’ injury and what he saw …

“You know, I don’t know. I think at that point we were trying to finish the game off.”

On if he looked at film of Hagans’ injury …

“Oh, no. I know the doctors looked at it. I think, kind of like what we talk about with our players, you kind of control what you can control. If Ashton is available, he’s available. If he’s hurt, he’s hurt. Our job is to go out and grab a roster of guys that can step up. If a guy’s out, it’s the next man up. I think Cal and our staff has the utmost confidence in the other guys. If Ashton can’t play, just like he couldn’t in the last couple of minutes of the Missouri game, we were able to finish that off. I think we’ll start tomorrow night at nine o’clock and if he’s there, great. If he’s not, I think we have confidence in the other guys who are ready to step up.”

On what Hagans’ usual contributions to the game are …

“I think Ashton, you know, is a guy who starts our defense. Cal has always said that your identity on defense starts on the ball. That’s obviously an important part of how we play and how Coach wants to coach. I think he gives the other guys confidence. He is a player who gives us defensive identity. When Cal’s teams have been great that’s what they’ve always had, a defensive identity. You know, if he’s not out there that means somebody else is going to have to pick up that slack.”

On how to free Nate Sestina for shots when teams take away the pick-and-pop …

“I think anytime that you have somebody on the floor that’s skilled, that can shoot, that can pass, that can read the game like Nate can and does, it opens up different things for the other guys, the other four guys. Much like when we had Derek Willis here, he spread the floor for Jamal Murray. He spread the floor for Malik Monk, great scorers. He opened the floor up for great guards like Tyler Ulis or De’Aaron Fox and then on both of those teams a driving, power guard like Isaiah Briscoe. That’s what Nate brings to this team is a threat, but also a skilled guy who plays facing the basket. When he’s out there he gives you a threat and sometimes the best thing that he can do is never have the ball because it opens up the floor for the other guys.”

On if it was the best thing for Kentucky offensively to have Sestina showcase that threat against Ohio State going forward …

“I think it was a great game for him individually. I think it was a great game for us to see, but most importantly it was an important thing for him and at a time for him to see the ball go through the hole and regain a little bit of his mojo back. And to do it on a big stage against a great opponent, a great defensive opponent like Ohio State, it has to give him, it has to give Coach Cal and the rest of our team confidence moving forward.”

On how Tyrese Maxey balances playing on the big stage against Anthony Edwards …

“I think Tyrese now has 15 games under his belt and almost 100 practices against great players. Tyrese is a guy who comes out to practice every day with kind of a hard hat on and works. Yes, he loves the big games, but I think he values what he’s about to do here for the next two hours at practice. He’s going to go up against other great players, that in our opinion and it’s his opinion as well, they’re just as good as anybody he’s going to play any night. That’s why Tyrese gets better because he comes in here every day to practice and he gets to practice against great players for two hours not just 40 minutes.”

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

On how important that he, Kahlil Whitney and EJ Montgomery are to this team …

“We definitely have to step up to help this team reach its full potential. If we’re not playing well or we’re not giving it everything we’ve got, our team is capped and that’s not a good thing. All three of us are going to pick it up, we’re going to continue to push through and eventually, that light bulb will go on for us and we’ll be clicking on all cylinders.”

On how well he knows Georgia’s Anthony Edwards …

“I’ve been playing against Anthony since about third or fourth grade, so I’m very familiar with him. Great player. We’ve just got to do everything we can to make it hard on him and limit his open looks. He’s just a great all-around player. He can score on all three levels of the floor, very good with the ball, a good shooter, so we’ve just got to make sure we’re making it tough on him, limit his open looks and when he does get one, just make sure we’re there contesting.”

On playing in the first true road game of the season on Tuesday …

“Yeah, we’re definitely looking forward to it, to see how we are in a different environment besides playing neutral or playing at Rupp. See what our team is really made of, playing somewhere else besides home, so we’re really happy and eager to go play somewhere else.”

On how hard it is to be patient as a freshman …

“I wouldn’t say it’s hard to be patient. For me personally, I’m able to self-analyze and look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘if I’m doing the right things on the floor, obviously, I would get more playing time and if not, I would be selfish to think I should be playing more.’ So, it’s not difficult for me at all to be able to look in the mirror and see what’s going on.”

On how he grades himself …

“As long as I can look in the mirror at the end of the game and say that I gave it everything I got, I was locked in and played with a lot of energy. That’s all I really care about at the end of the day. Sometimes just being out there, playing hard and having energy, you’ll be able to fill up the box score because you have energy, playing hard, but some nights it’s not like that. But as long as you’re going out there, playing hard and just trying to make the right play every time, I can live with that.”

On if he’s able to replicate his mindset to a game where he played well …

“You definitely try to look back and replicate what your mindset was that game, to get back to that, to be able to play free and not worry about what’s going on on offesnse and not put so much pressure on yourself to score the ball or anything like that. Like that game (against Georgia Tech), I was just focused on playing hard, playing defense and rebounding the ball. And because of that, I was able to score a little bit more than I usually do. So that’s a game I look back at all the time.”

On what his biggest hurdle has been so far this season …

“Just the everyday grind of it. Cal is not letting up. He’s pushing you to get better every single day and sometimes that’s hard. Just the grind of everything, every day, repetitively. But that’s what I came here for, so I’m not going to sit here and complain about it.”

On what the adjustment is to the quick turnaround in SEC play …

“It’s just being ready, mentally focused. You don’t have as much time to lock in on one particular team because you’re not just having one game a week now. But I think it’s good for us. I think we have a smart team, an intelligent team, so as long as we’re locked in and listening to Cal, we should be fine.”

#5, Immanuel Quickley, So., G

On Ashton Hagans’ status and whether he has practiced …

“We haven’t practiced since (he got hurt), so I guess we’ll find out today. Other than what y’all saw, that’s all I really know.”

On the void that Hagans would leave if he can’t play at Georgia …

“It would definitely be a big position for us to fill. What he gives our team, what he brings, his energy, his leadership, his defensive ability, his toughness. All stuff that’s hard to replace, but we would just have to try to do it as a collective team.”

On what Hagans has said about his ankle …

“He said he felt fine, but you never know until you get out on the floor, try to cut and move stuff like that. So, I guess we’ll see.”

On Anthony Edwards …

“I haven’t seen too much. I just know from watching McDonald’s All-American Games and stuff like that he’s pretty good. They got a really good team. Georgia’s well coached. Tom Crean’s done a great job the past couple years, so Georgia will definitely be a good test for us, especially on the road. We got a lot of young guys, so we’re just going to have to try to come together and get a win.”

On potentially playing more on the ball in Hagans’ absence …

“It honestly doesn’t matter to me whether I’m playing on or off. Me and Tyrese (Maxey) can play on or off the ball. If Ashton’s able to go, he can even play off the ball. Honestly, when we’re playing three guards or two guards, it doesn’t really matter. We’re pretty much comfortable whichever way.”

On what makes Edwards dangerous …

“He’s like 6-6, really strong, athletic, can shoot, can create his own shot, which in turn makes his teammates better because you’re spending so much attention guarding him. We’ll have a tough task guarding him tomorrow.”

On what makes him effective on defense …

“I got really long arms. I think my wingspan’s like 6-9 or 6-10, so really long arms. I can get deflections, contest. I think I’m pretty quick defensively, so just being able to use my tools effectively and get stops and make stuff hard for the offensive players is key.”

On what he remembers about going on the road in SEC play …

“Every game’s tough. Most teams’ student sections are right on the floor, so they’re screaming and yelling and saying stuff. Just gotta try to be composed and for a freshman that can be tough, but I’ve seen it before so probably won’t be too rattled, too nervous or anything like that. Just gotta try to stay composed and try to help out the young guys.”