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Kenny Payne and Wildcats preview Mississippi State

The Bulldogs have emerged as a legitimate contender in the race for the SEC’s regular-season crown.

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 looking to rebound from their setback at Auburn when the Mississippi State Bulldogs invade Rupp Arena on Tuesday.

Now sitting at 16-5 overall and 6-2 in SEC play, the Wildcats need a strong finish to have any hope of catching LSU in the race for the league’s regular-season crown, as well as getting a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Doing so will be easier said than done with a red-hot Bulldogs team coming to town, as Ben Howland’s club has won five-straight league games thanks to the improved play of sophomore big man Reggie Perry. Now a strong contender for SEC Player of the Year, Perry has scored 22+ points in seven of his last 10 games after failing to do so in his first 11 games.

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

Associate Head Coach Kenny Payne

On what he saw with Nick Richards at Auburn …

“Not aggressive enough, not physical enough, not quite ready for the battle. In this game, similar to the Mississippi State game that we’re going to see tomorrow, you better be the aggressor. If not, you will be on your heels the whole night which was a great lesson for him. Thought (Austin) Wiley, the kid Austin Wiley, really played hard against him. Really tried to be physical with him, and in return he had a double-double, that kid did. We’re not going to win if Nick Richards isn’t playing well.”

On if Wiley took Richards out of the game after setting the tone early …

“I’ll say this to you: It has nothing to do with the opponent. It always has to do within Nick and his mental (approach) and how he approaches the game. Yesterday I sat down with him and said, ‘Do you remember a year ago? Do you remember two years ago? When you were saying, ‘I just want to play man. I’ll do whatever. Just let me play.’ Well, not only are you getting a chance to play, how you play determines if this team is going to win or lose. So that’s a lot of responsibility. You better mentally come in this thing every single day and prepare for war.”

On what kind of challenge Reggie Perry presents …

“Tough challenge. He’s an NBA player. Big, strong, athletic. Can shoot it. Tough around the basket. Going to be a big challenge for our guys, especially when he’s at the four because he’s 6-9, 610. Again, athletic, great touch around the basket, can shoot jump shots, can beat you off the dribble, and he’s a great rebounder, so he’s a big part of what they’re doing and a big part of our success is how we handle him.”

On if it’s a good thing in a way that they’re going against a physical team after what Auburn did to UK’s bigs …

“It’s very similar. A team like Mississippi State, they’re a great rebounding team, they’re a great offensive rebounding team. They are big, they’re strong, they’re physical. They are probably the most physical team in the SEC. They have good shooters. They play hard. They’re really good defensively, so to follow Auburn up with them, there are some similarities.”

On if Richards had a bit of arrogance after his recent performances and the subsequent praise …

“No, I don’t think (so). Nick is not in a position to where he can come in this environment day after day – after having success – come here and feel good about anything. The time for Nick to feel good is when he leaves this program and he’s a success story. Until that time, every single day that he’s here, we’re pushing him for greatness. You played great? Great. Next day. So, I don’t personally see arrogance. Again, I see a guy that was the aggressor and he wasn’t and it set the tone for the game.”

How the players balance being aggressive and staying out of foul trouble, specifically Richards …

“It’s a tough situation. You know, him and Ashton (Hagans) are very similar. They have such a major impact to his program, to this team, to their teammates. Our success rides with them. The responsibility for them, Ashton in particularly, is to be disciplined. We know you have great hands but there are times in the game where you have to show your hands to the referees, because if your hands are down and you reach, they could blow their whistle. We teach play without fouling. That’s what we teach, so you see a game when 40-something free throws and we’re teaching that (not to foul), then it’s either one of two things: a lack of discipline on our behalf or the referees eyes didn’t see hands up one or the other.

On being on the bad side of the whistle …

“No question. I think if you look at our season the successes to the game that we won, we were the aggressor. When you look at our losses, we were on our heels. Whether that was Evansville, whether that was Utah, whether that was Ohio State, when we’re not the aggressor, we’re in a dogfight.”

On what Richards said to him when they met …

“He understood. He remembers. He knows. He understands why there are days when he’s done so well and everyone’s giving him credit and love and admiration for how far he came and he’s wanting that from us – from Coach (John Calipari), from myself, from (Tony) Barbee, from Joel (Justus). Well, we can’t give him that. We can’t allow him to ever relax because we have a thin margin, very thin. We’re not an overpowered, most talented team in the SEC. We’re not the most talented team in the country. We have really good players and we got to play really well to win, and each guy, especially Nick, has to bring that part to the table.”

On Ashton Hagans’ turnovers …

“I just think they’re careless. Again, has nothing to do with defender. More to do with his mindset and carelessness and undisciplined at times. When we watch him on film, just take the eyes of the ball for no reason. Hit his foot for no reason. Just has to be a little more focused. Probably some of it is minutes, playing a lot of minutes. The season is long. We played a lot of games. We practice hard her. But you’ve got to be mentally locked in.”

On EJ Montgomery’s conditioning…

“I think a part of it is conditioning. I think the majority of it is mentality. Can I fight through? Will I fight through? Again, another kid, that I would say, high-character kid that his battle isn’t the opponent. His battle is how he sees his self, how he fights through whatever is that’s holding him back. He’s capable. He’s a very good basketball player that has to learn to fight through his own demons. He’s headed in the right direction. There are times that he does some unbelievable things for us to win that doesn’t get in the newspaper clippings or whatever, but he’s an integral part of what we do here and we need him to play better.”

On Montgomery rising to the occasion to play good defense against Reggie Perry …

“Again, the kid (Perry) is an NBA player. There will be a bunch of scouts coming here to see him. There’s a challenge there. So, EJ is capable. Nick is capable. How about Keion Brooks (Jr.). ‘You may have to guard him at times when we play him at the four. So, don’t care that he is 100 pounds bigger. You’ve gotta fight.’ So, there is a challenge there that we’ve gotta rise up to that challenge and have success against him.”

On if there’s a sense of hopelessness when you’re playing against a guy that is so much bigger than you …

“Well, from the outside looking in it may be (hopeless), but from within you have no choice. You have to fight. These games, wins and losses, aren’t coming down to strategies and defensive plays and offensive strategies of what you want to do and defensive strategies and how you want to guard this. This is your will to win. Battle by battle, possession by possession, what are you willing to do to fight to help this team win? Doesn’t care that, you know, you give up 100 pounds. We don’t care. Don’t care that you get a bad whistle. You gotta win anyway. That’s why you chose this school. We win, historically, when the odds are against us. There are no excuses here.”

On how important Nick and Ashton are and relying on other guys…

“We need Nate Sestina to play better. We need him to relax and play hard. The things that he did before he got here – the fight, the toughness, the energy, the effort to get things done – we need that. This team sorely needs him. And he’s trying. We need more.”

On if Richards needs positive reinforcement …

“This ain’t the place for that. [Media laughs.] Not with me. Not with Coach. Look, we love them, we cherish them, we hug them and kiss them. But at the end of the day, when you step on that wood, your job is to fight. What you did yesterday is history. What you did the game before is history. We forget about that. We on to the next. It’s just what it is. That’s why we’ve had so many guys that have had success in this game because we don’t lay on our successes. We move on to the next.”

On what he saw from Richards when he came out of his slump in Las Vegas that he could lean upon now …

“I don’t think there’s a rhyme or reason to it. I just think it’s game to game, moment to moment, second to second. If Nick comes out with the mentality that, ‘I’m playing well tonight, I’m going to fight you, I’m going to rebound, I’m going to make strong moves around the basket, I’m going to post up hard, I’m going to move my feet on defense with my hands up, I’m going to contest and block shots,’ then he is going to play well. If he decides, ‘I don’t know, I don’t quite feel like I can move my feet or fight you in the post or I’m standing straight up,’ the other guy is going to win the battle. It’s really that simple.”

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

On guarding Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry, who is 6-10 and 250 pounds …

“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have 100 pounds on me [laughter]. I’m pretty sure he probably has a big weight difference. At the end of the day, it just comes down to who wants it more. I just got to go out there and fight and try to do everything I can to help the team win. If I have to guard him, then so be it. I’m going to do everything I can in my power and my ability to get stops and battle on the boards to help us win.”

On how he can neutralize the size difference between himself and Perry …

“This thing right here in my chest, my heart. That’s all it comes down to. That’s all it really is, just having some heart and not willing to be pushed around. I’m capable of it. There have been days in practice when I have brought my physicality up and I’ve done very well. There have been some times in games I have done it. I just got to keep it consistent. I’m going to be fine.”

On what the coaches have told the team about Mississippi State …

“They’ve been harping on that and emphasizing that a lot. Especially the way we kind of got pushed around the last game. (MSU) is probably looking at film and thinking they can do the same thing, just like Auburn did. We’ve just got to come in with a mindset that we’re not going to be pushed around. Go out and just try to be physical and make enough plays to win the game.”

On how important it is for players other than Nick Richards and Ashton Hagans to step up …

“We all work as a unit. When they’re not having the best of nights, or are in foul trouble or whatever, we have to be able to pick it up. We can’t rely on them so much to bail us out all the time. They’re our leaders, but at the same time, we have to be able to pick up the slack when they’re not necessarily playing well or are not in the floor in foul trouble.”

On if the season is really a grind at this point …

“No, I’m embracing it. This is what I always dreamed of, playing at a prestigious school like this, playing against the best competition in the country. And then if I’m ever mentally fatigued, what helps me through is my teammates. They’ve done a great job of making sure we stay together and always relying on each other, whether it’s to vent or talk about anything. I know I’ve got 13 other guys in that locker room that I can always go to. The mental strain has never really gotten to me because I have great teammates and a great coaching staff.”

On which players have stepped up and tried to rally the team after the loss at Auburn …

“Nate (Sestina), Ashton, Nick, Quick (Immanuel Quickley), our veteran guys. They’ve been through it before. Took some tough losses last year or throughout their college career. They let us know it’s not the end of the world, we’ve still got some time to get it together. We were trending in the right direction, slipped back a little bit, but they’re just letting us know that it’s not the end of the world, like I said, and we still got time to fix everything.”

On what he thinks about all of the fouls being called in college basketball this season …

“That thought has never crossed my mind. I just go out there and play the game. However the officiating is going, that’s what they do. Us, as players, we have to go out there and just try to make plays to win games. If they’re officiating a certain way, just adjust to it. Just go out there and play the game well.”

#1, Nate Sestina, Gr., F

On stressing physicality vs. Mississippi State …

“We watched the film yesterday from the Auburn game. We kind of got manhandled in that game and it’s a point of emphasis after watching film that we need to be a little bit tougher, make contact first going after rebounds on free throws, quit watching the ball when we’re going for rebounds and just moving forward it’s just a big point of emphasis for us. Just making sure that we’re the ones hitting first and making sure we’re the ones stepping first to go after rebounds.”

On getting through the grind of a season …

“Just trusting the work that you do every day, trusting everything you’ve put in so far, whether it’s conditioning, whether it’s lifting, extra reps, all that stuff. Just believing in that, knowing that your teammates trust you, your coaching staff believes in you. This is my fifth year doing it too, so personally I have to do a better job of just knowing that it’s going to come full circle and just trusting all the stuff that I’ve done, but my teammates too. Especially for the younger guys, this is their first time playing college basketball where you’re in the middle of conference play and it can wear on you. But if you kind of trust and believe that everything you’ve done is going to pay itself off, then we’ll be good.”

On whether he has been asked to change his game from playing at Bucknell …

“No, I have to do a better job of, like I said earlier, stepping first and making the contact first. They’re not really asking anything crazy of me and it’s not a matter of adjusting anymore. I’m used to playing in the SEC now. It’s not my first game. I have to do a better job of being a leader and getting back to what I was doing – talking, jumping around, being vocal whether I’m off the court or I’m off the court – and kind of get back to that energy guy that I was before. I kind of got away from that after I got hurt and I just have to get back.”

On his confidence in his shot …

“I’m really confident. I work on that every day, whether it’s with KP (Kenny Payne) or whether it’s with Coach (Tony) Barbee or Joel (Justus) or myself in the gym. It’s stuff that I do every day. Like I said before, just kind of trusting that process and trusting the reps and stuff that you do every day knowing it’s going to pay off, whether it was last game where I missed or whether it’s next game or the game after that that it’s going to come full circle. Just trusting everything that you do and believing in that and trying not to stray away from that and staying mentally tough.”

On facing a tough team like Mississippi State right after failing in that area at Auburn …

“It’s a good test for us. After watching the film and kind of seeing and watching that you got pushed around a little bit and then going after it yesterday in practice and going after it again today in practice. Like I said before, just trusting that everything that we’re doing the past two days is going to pay off tomorrow night. I think it’s a good test for us going into the game knowing that they pride themselves on that. That’s something that we have to get in our head, is that we have to pride ourselves on being tough. We have tough guys. We just have to prove it.”

On needing others to step up so UK can withstand off nights by its top performers …

“It’s big. We only have eight guys right now that are on scholarship that are playing. Moving forward, this is a beast of a season. Conference play is always hard, then you go into the conference tournament and you have three more games. It’s also hard. We do have to rely on everybody. It’s not just on Ashton (Hagans) and Nick (Richards) and Immanuel (Quickley) and Tyrese (Maxey) to score or to get us stops. It has to be the three guys coming off the bench with me, Keion (Brooks Jr.) and Johnny (Juzang) as well and all of us, really, coming together, huddling, talking about everything, talking about what you see and not just trying to play and trying to do everything one on one, but just coming together and playing as five.”