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Kenny Payne and Wildcats preview Texas A&M

The Wildcats know they’ll have their hands full with the Aggies in College Station.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are back on the road Tuesday for a showdown with the Texas A&M Aggies in College Station.

Ahead of the game, associate head coach Kenny Payne and select players met with the media Monday to preview the game. Here is a recap of everything they had to say via UK Athletics.

Associate Head Coach Kenny Payne

On who he would cast his vote for in the #PickNick, #PickQuick awards campaign …

“I’d say co-Players of the Year. They are both well deserving. They both have had good years to this point. They’ve done their jobs. They’ve done well to this point. I’m proud of both. Immanuel Quickley, who probably doesn’t get enough credit simply from where he came from to where he is today, unbelievable. Where he is mentally as opposed to last year where his mind was racing and there was so much doubt, the growth that he’s shown, not just in the shooting and in basketball and making plays, but just mentally of being sure who he is as a player, it’s a long way. He came a long way.”

On if Quickley is Kentucky’s go-to option …

“I think when you look back over the baskets that we’ve had down the stretch of games, it’s one common denominator. He’s been making big plays and putting that ball in the basket a multitude of ways. A guy you would start out saying is a catch-and-shoot guy is now beating people off of the dribble, getting into the lane, making floaters, making pull-ups, making tough 2s, layups, along with making 3s.”

On what the staff has seen in Quickley all along this season …

“Just his mental approach from the summer when he first came back. I think there was an all-star game or a summer league game or something that he played in and people were calling and saying, ‘Wow. He had 40-something in this game against pros. It was against top-level guys and he looked different.’ Then when he came here there was a different type of swagger about him. He could handle criticism. He could handle tough coaching, which last year he struggled with. Being able to deal with letting the coach down by not performing to your ability, I think that weighed on him last year, whereas now it’s the only person I have to please is me. I know what I’m doing. I’m comfortable with who I am as a player. I think another part of Immanuel’s growth is his faith in God. It doesn’t get talked about a lot, but he has depended on that when he needed it the most.”

On Quickley having to adjust last year to playing off the ball after being a point guard in high school …

“I would say that it is a huge adjustment just simply from the point of not having the ball in your hands. You lose a little bit of that making decisions, having the ability to make decisions regardless. So, you have to adjust your game. The great ones that have come here, the players that have had a lot of success – Jamal Murrays, Isaiah Briscoes – those guys had the ball in their hands so much in high school and the adjustment – even Tyler Herro – the adjustment of playing off of the ball, traditionally it has made them better basketball players. I think Immanuel is a case of that. It’s going to make him – and it has made him – a better basketball, a more well-rounded player.”

On if Quickley was a score-first point guard …

“Yes. I think now, what you are watching, his decision-making has come just as far as any part of his game. The decision making has gotten better. Now, is it where it needs to be? No. But, it’s light years ahead of where it was. To be able to beat a person off of the dribble and make a quick decision, whether it’s a lob, a skip pass or shoot it, I think that has come a long way with him.”

On EJ Montgomery being so close to breaking through, but continues to fight through foul trouble …

“Yeah, he is close. I think what happened to the mental part of it when he gets that second foul and having to sit, it takes away his aggression and so he goes back to being tentative. But when he’s starting games off like he’s started the last two, you’re expecting him to have a big night and then all of a sudden you get your second foul. But his energy is way better, his rebounding is better, his fighting to make plays for us to win has been really good. Here’s one for you guys: He’s posting up harder than he’s ever posted up. The second part of that is our guards haven’t passed him the ball. We’re in staff meetings and film sessions saying, ‘EJ, why don’t you just punch the guy that’s not passing you the ball? Like, let him know.’ You want this ball. Don’t just accept a guy saying, ‘My fault, my bad.’ They shot the ball and you’re wide open with a defender.”

On how he handles picking up the second foul and what do the coaches tell him …

“Well, if he gets in the first half, I think what we’ve all done is he knows he’s not going back in. So, when he’s starting over in the second half, play aggressive just like you did to start the first half and just play hard. Don’t worry about getting the third or fourth. Just play. We’ll figure it out as it goes.”

On Montgomery being more comfortable attacking lately …

“We’re working on it daily. Again, he’s worked really hard. He’s had some success. Some of it is not showing in the games as well as it should, but he’s close. Like you said, he’s close.”

On what challenges Texas A&M presents …

“Very tough game. They try to get you in foul trouble, which you know has been something that we struggle with. They throw a lot of junk defenses at you. They throw different rotations and zones and presses. We have to be a really good passing team in this game. We have to be able to attack them and make good passes because from the day we started this season, we all talked about the better offensive teams are the better passing teams. Well, they’re not going to let you run plays. You’ve got to be able to spread the floor, drive the ball, move the ball and make good passes to each other and take good shots.”

On if Texas A&M is going to try to “muck up the game” …

“Yes, they will. They are very physical. They’re a really good offensive rebounding team. They throw the ball to the post to a guy who is really good down there at drawing fouls and creating havoc. They’re a good team. They are capable of beating us.”

On how they decide who to put back in the game when they’re playing through foul trouble in their front court like they were Saturday …

“We’ve been lucky. We do it by committee. We try to go to a zone at times to leave a guy out there with two (fouls). It’s not one particular thing. We’re all racking our brains. Cal is racking his brain over, ‘How do I play a guy with two fouls without him getting his third in the first half?’ It’s just one of those things we have to deal with.”

On why they are fouling so much …

“I think the major thing is they get a little tired and then you see them relax a little bit, and then they end up reacting to something and then they get their hand in and they’re not showing their hands defensively, or they’re not moving their feet. So, we’ve addressed it. We’ve talked about it. We’ve talked about how important it is to play without fouling. Lately it’s been the strategy of all teams – get Kentucky in foul trouble.”

On if Ashton Hagans has some season-long wear and tear that’s piling up on him …

“I think so. I think he had an injury a little while back where we had to limit his practices where he at times didn’t practice. But no excuses here. Ashton has to play better. He has to eliminate the – and I hate to say it – unforced turnovers because they’re not forced. They’re a-lack-of-concentration, a-lack-of-discipline turnovers that, you know, for us at this point now, we’re at a critical point where now we’re starting to—this is what we trained for. This is the moments now where we have to be headed in the right direction, and there are six or seven minutes every game where there’s a lull in our offense. They’re a lull in our focus. There’s a lull in what we’re doing on the court. We have to clean that up, and some of that starts with turnovers – unforced.”

On if he’s seen defenses adjust to Hagans, especially with him getting in the air before he makes a decision …

“Well, what has happened the last couple games is when he drives, before the defenses were collapsing and he could make passes. Now the defenses are spreading out and going to shooters and he’s having to make the read of, do I shoot it or do I throw the lob?’ Well, they make take Nick Richards away. The lob is not there. He has to be under control and reading, I have a shot. If I miss it, I miss it. I just can’t miss them all, as Cal would say. But I’ve got to put it on the rim and allow our bigs to rebound it.”

On if they’ve found any solutions to breaking the press in late-game situations that’s plagued the team recently ….

“Well, for the first time since I’ve been here, we’re struggling with a press at the end of games. And it’s not during the game; it’s more towards the end when the game is win or lose. And a lot of it starts with guys like Tyrese (Maxey) – who is standing over here – not getting into the body of the defender and just coming and meet passes. But it’s more of just getting into bodies, breaking open. It’s not a thing of we’re running the wrong press offense. That’s not the case. Our press offense has been great for years. We’ve just got to get better at getting into bodies and getting open and being strong with the ball.”

On if Texas A&M uses a press …

“They do, and they will probably throw some press at us and scramble the game up like we talked about before. We have to make the adjustment and be – again, I go back to this – we’ve trained all this time for this time of the year. Right now, we want to be playing our best basketball leading up into going into the tournament, going into the NCAA Tournament. A lot of that offensively starts with passing. Making good passes, being a really good passing team, seeing each other, making extra passes and attacking defenses.”

#3, Tyrese Maxey, Fr., G

On late-game situations …

“Just working on some different things. Coach Cal said he’s going to show us some stuff today. It’s really just on us trying to get open.”

On going back to Texas and whether he has people coming to the game …

“Some friends, some family. It’s kind of far from the crib, but my mom’s going to be there supporting me, which is always great.”

On Texas A&M’s physicality …

“I think we’re very physical with each other in practice. The practices, especially in the fall and the Thursday practices we have here. So, I think we’re ready for it.”

On the #PickNick and #PickQuick campaign …

“Pick ‘em. They deserve it. It’s funny that that rhymes: Pick Nick (Richards) and Quick (Immanuel Quickley). Testimony to their work. They both put in a lot of work and I’m proud of both of those two. I hope they get the accomplishments they deserve.”

On who gets top billing between the two …

“Pick both Nick and Quick. Or pick both. I don’t know how to say it. I’m just proud of both of them for playing well and hopefully—I feel like they can keep doing that. Like I said, hopefully they get the accomplishments they deserve.”

On whether they view Quickley as their go-to guy …

“Yeah, if we need him to. Whatever Coach Cal tells us we need to do. If we’re going to Immanuel, then that’s what we’re going to do. If we’re going to Nick, if we’re going to Ashton (Hagans), if we’re going to EJ (Montgomery). Coach Cal said something about having multiple players that can score 25. I think Quick joined that club too as well.”

On needing to get the ball to Montgomery …

“If he’s open, he needs to get the ball. Yeah, you’re right. Sometimes we miss him. We don’t see everything. Coach Cal always says, we’re not robots. So, if I miss him, I always apologize. If he says he was open, I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to look for you next time.’ But yeah, he should say something. If you’re open, anybody, and you work that hard, especially EJ, Nick, Nate (Sestina), Keion (Brooks Jr.), guys like that who fight their behinds off and rebound and defend. If they’re open in the post, you should get it to them.”

#23, EJ Montgomery, So., F

On Kenny Payne saying he needs to punch the guards if they miss him when he’s open …

“I’m trying to find another way to do it, but he’s telling me that I just need to punch them. They’re my guys. I try to just tell them and try to have them hit me next time.”

On Texas A&M being a physical team …

“We just need to bring that physicality back, but still try to limit our fouls and just bring that energy and just to go out there and compete.”

On whether they view Quickley as their go-to guy …

“Yes, definitely. He’s hit a lot of big shots and he’s been making them. He’s just been playing so well, so he can have that spot.”

On whether he feels like he is playing harder …

“I feel like I’m playing harder. When you have guys that’s playing so well like that, you have to just go out there and do little things that’s not so much scoring. You have to go get rebounds, play defense and things like that.”

On how close he feels to breaking out …

“I feel very close. I’m just getting better every day in practice and just clicking with the guys and things like that and just trying to go out there and show it on the court.”