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Wildcats preview Mississippi State

Time to shine.

Calipari, huddle UK Athletics

The Kentucky Wildcats hope the start of SEC play provides a fresh start for what’s been a rough stretch to begin the 2020-21 season. Their first conference test comes Saturday in Starkville against a Mississippi State team looking for their own signature win to show they’re a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender.

On Thursday, assistant coach Joel Justus and freshman forward Isaiah Jackson met with the media to preview Saturday’s matchup. That came after head coach John Calipari hopped on the weekly SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday to discuss the state of his team entering league play.

Here is a recap of what they all had to say via UK Athletics.

John Calipari

On his team as it opens conference play …

“Obviously we’re struggling. There are unhappy (people) here, including me, and there are a lot of happy people around the country. But here is what I will tell you: There is no—you would think locker room issues, player issues. There are none. I mean, we had an issue with one of our players, sent him home and he’s back now. Smile on his face. Instead of angry, a smile on his face. He told the team, ‘Don’t do what I did. You don’t want to go home. I mean, this is where you want to be.’ They want to be coached. They’re fighting. They’re defending. They’re rebounding. We turn it over too much. Working on that. Miss a lot of shots, but the biggest thing is our execution on offense has got to get better, and we’ve got time to continue to work on it. The frame of mind, I’ve had a lot of individual (meetings). More individual (meetings). ‘How are you feeling? How is your mentality?’ I told each of our players, ‘Be with at least one of our coaches. Even if you’ve got to go stay with them.’ This stuff is different. I’m always asking, ‘How are you feeling? Where are you mentally?’ But I haven’t lost any faith in the team. I wish we would have won a couple of games. It’s kind of like buzzard luck. Nothing will die. We can’t kill anything. This shot misses by this. This shot misses by that. We don’t finish a game. We turn it over here. But most of it is self-inflicted. But I’m happy they’re fighting. Now we got to finish off a game and it’s not going to get easier. We’re in a tough league. It’s going to be hard. No one is going to give us a game and no one feels bad for us. We’re going to have to go take one. And so that’s the mentality, but I’m focused on how do we get the execution offensively so we can get better shots – shots we can make.”

On what the conversations were like about adding a game midweek …

“There were two teams in the MTE that we had that didn’t play: Detroit, and their league would not let them play, and Hartford, who was in the MTE. We thought about it. But the other side of it is, we were going back and forth and I was like, do we really want to prepare for another team when we’re concerned about our team? There are things that we got to get better. We’ve got to execute better. I’ll give you an example: We had about 10 stops in a row (vs. Louisville) and we come up dry. Like, eight out of 10. You can’t. But listen, four of those were turnovers where they got a layup coming down the other way. Well, you can’t win games with those. So, you’ve got to really zero in and really break down offensively because you can’t just skirt through it and think they know it because they don’t. It’s an inexperienced team. What we were talking about what that and it’s not going to happen. So, we’re focused on how do we do this? How do we continue to compete and get better?”

On who he might consult with about the start or what past examples he might lean on …

“I’ve had a lot of friends of mine call and just say, ‘My team started this way. We lost five in a row and went on to win a national title. My team was 5-7 and went on to win the Big Ten. And my team was this.’ There are multiple examples. But they had won games along the way and then they hit a skid. Different boat right now and just trying to get these guys to—in their mind, let’s paint our own picture. This could be one of the great stories in the last five years if we can do this right. We’ve been right there in a bunch of these games, and you would have thought, OK, one of them falls your way or one thing finishes your way, and they’ve all went the other way. So, let’s hope as we go forward, usually you get a couple that fall your way. Now sometimes – I don’t want to say this – it’s the next season. You’re hoping it’s your own season. You get out of 2020. I think the good news is, not only do I want out of 2020, I think the whole country wants out of 2020 and let’s start anew.”

On how Florida’s Keyontae Johnson’s situation impacts perspective on basketball …

“I had it with Marcus Camby when I was at UMass. Fell out right before (the game). He was in the hallway getting ready for the game where he was walking out in the St. Bonaventure game up there and it happened. He was in the hospital a week. It took two or three weeks before they let him come back on the court and did all the stuff. You look at everything you’re doing, and in this case, anyone that has already had COVID you’re like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute now. Are we sure?’ You check with your medical people. I’m just happy the kid is safe, that he’ll come back from this. You can see why there are guys that say, ‘Hey, what are we doing,’ because of that kind of situation. Yeah, we’re all concerned. I’m just as concerned with mental health. I keep coming back to it. I had a bunch of kids over my house at Christmas. And I know, ‘Well, you gathered.’ Come on now. We’ve been tested 19 times a week and they were just them, my wife and I. But I just think it’s important. I’ve had guys come stay at the house. For me, I haven’t been through many years like this. I’ve been through stretches, but not the beginning of seasons like this. I’m feeling OK, but you sit there and you’re not feeling like you normally do – what are these kids feeling like here where it’s like the weight of the world on their shoulders? I want to let them know, ‘Come on now, we’re going to be fine. We’re going to get better.’ And the other thing is, I say it all the time, there are fans that are really into this and will be all for these kids and there are others that won’t be, and my hope is they’re on me about it. The start and all that, be on me. Let these kids alone. This is hard enough getting through COVID, being at Kentucky where we’re 1-6 and whatever, and there are celebrations after beating us. I mean, literally, not just one team. ‘We just beat Kentucky!’ Yeah, we’re 1-4, 1-5, 1-3. So, it is what it is. You’re at Kentucky, it’s added. So, it’s not just that myocarditis, not just that, I’m talking about mental health too. I’m probably doing more things together with my team knowing that if something happens, it may slow us down, but I think it’s important.”

On his conversations with Cam’Ron Fletcher being back with the team …

“We did a call with mother, his high school coach, and me and Cam, and I told him what the expectations were. I’ll just go over one. I told him, ‘You may not play a minute this year. How are you going to deal with that? What if you don’t play?’ I wanted everybody to hear that so that we understood that this is for the long haul. This is to get you to change. There were a couple of other things that I said to him that I absolutely expected, that if you wanted to be a part of it, this is how this would be. And he was great. I think the kid feels bad, but he had to have a wake-up call. The conversation was, he came in and he hugged me. ‘Coach, I’m telling you, I’m going to be a different guy.’ Perfect. Because that’s why you do it. I’m not doing it to prove a point. All of you on this call know I discipline kids and not one of you ever know it. So, then it became, why this? Obviously it went to a length that, within disciplining wasn’t working. He’s not a bad kid or anything like that, but he’s back now. Now he’s back and the team was all happy that he was back. They knew he needed to change, and we move on. It’s a blip in the screen. We’ve still got some injured guys. I told some guys, ‘OK, you’re going to have an opportunity if this stays the way it is and now you’re going to have to go and have some fun and do what you do. Next man up.’ Here’s the issue with being at Kentucky, say you’re here and you’re a pretty good player and you’re behind two first round draft picks. Why didn’t he play more? Should have played 25 minutes a game, who is behind two first round draft picks or two big guys that are first-round draft picks or lottery picks or whatever. This is a different deal. Sometimes you have to wait for your chance and then prove yourself. And I’m rooting for all of these kids. I want them all to make it. I’m so proud of Mychal Mulder and what he’s doing. Mychal Mulder was behind first round draft picks, even his senior year played seven, eight minutes. And I even tell him, ‘Look, I had nothing to do with helping you.’ And he’ll argue the point, but he did this because he learned to fight, and that dude never lost his spirit and his ability to fight. His point was, if I can play against these guys every day in practice and hold my own, why can’t I play in that league? And that’s what he’s doing. And so this is, we’ve got some guys now – how about Jacob (Toppin) when he got his opportunity? How’d he look? Jacob was like our most aggressive offensive player. How did he look? ‘Well he didn’t play a whole lot and you didn’t play him.’ Well, he waited for his chance and he went and did what he did. How about Davion (Mintz)? Davion wasn’t playing much early. At the end of the day, the guys that – I’m in practice every day with these kids and I know everybody thinks they know my team better than I do and I’m fine. Let me tell you, the greatest thing about Kentucky is that you have a raging fan base. But when things are going south, you’ve got to be able to deal with that or you’re not going to have a raging fan base. You go like we are and they say, ‘Ah, next? Who cares?’ Not here. So, having to deal with that is all part of growth. And I keep telling them, this is a great thing to go through. Go through it now, so you know everything’s going against you and you’re working. Stuff doesn’t happen on your timetable. We’ve got a tough game coming up. It may not happen on our timetable. We want to win. We wanted to beat Louisville and we played that way. But you know what? The shot went (imitates noises like clanking off a basket) boop, boop and out. So now it’s not on our timetable. Am I happy? No. I wish that shot would have went down. I wish we wouldn’t have broke down. I wish he wouldn’t have banked that one two in. I could tell you a 1,000 things, but it’s not always on our timetable. I’m still focused on how do I get these guys better. How do I keep them going? How do I have fun? Listen folks, if I don’t have fun doing this I can’t help these kids and I’m having fun. I had fun at the Louisville game until the very end, that last play that didn’t go in and then BJ (Boston) got a good look at a 3 and then I was really unhappy, but not with him. After the game, I kissed Olivier (Sarr) on the forehead and said, ‘I’m going to go at you again in this situation.’ I called him in the office and I’m probably breaking confidence. I said, ‘I have so much confidence in you to make that.’ He said, ‘Why do you have confidence in me to make it? I missed it twice now.’ And I said, ‘Because I coached Brandon Knight who missed four or five of those and then we made shots in the NCAA Tournament one after the other. They got us to the Final Four. So, I believe in you. You just keep playing.’ Here’s the last thing I’m going to say, and hopefully Craig (Pinkerton) we’re done. When you’re playing like my team, buzzard luck – you’re fighting, you’re defending, you’re rebounding, you’re giving yourself a chance to win, nothing’s going your way, offensively you’re not executing, you’re not finishing, you’re not making shots – you have to get away from skill and talent and worry about effort, high energy, fight. You ready for the last thing? Execution. Worry about those. Those don’t take skill or talent and that’s what I’m trying to convince them of. What happens to us a lot of times is we’re so into what I’m doing, you break down on our team stuff. But we’re working on it and like I said, this isn’t where I want to be. I’m not used to being here. Am I up for this challenge? Yeah. I’m ready. Let’s go. Am I mad at players? Absolutely not. I’m not mad at one player on this team. Could we have done some things different? Yeah. Do I know that fans are upset? Yeah, I’m at Kentucky. They’re probably losing – now I don’t look at it, don’t read it, don’t look at the newspaper, don’t look at the local news so I don’t know what anybody’s saying. No one listens to me anyway. My wife, my dogs. I can’t even get my dogs to sit with me right now. But we’re going to prepare for the next one, prepare to play as well as we can play, prepare to execute better, continue to fight, defend and rebound and see where it goes.”

Joel Justus

On Dontaie Allen and his frame of mind …

“There’s no difference in that, you know, then what we do every single day here with our guys, our young guys here every single year. We have daily conversations with all of our players. And I think that’s a big thing that Cal is on right now, our entire staff is on right now, is we’re looking to build each one of our guys. That’s important. Early in the season, whether you’re undefeated or you’re in a situation like we are right now, we’re looking to build up each one of our guys every single day, every single rep. You do that by executing. You do that by working on your motor, by working hard, by cutting hard, by passing the ball to your teammates the right way. And that’s something that we’re looking to give them that confidence. As we build, you know, their mental picture of who they can become as an individual, the mental picture of who we can become as a team, you do that by practicing well. You do that by working out, spending extra time. I think with Dontaie, with all of our guys, we’re looking to have those conversations and build them up each and every day.”

On what the staff hopes to get out of closed scrimmages …

“Well, I think as Coach (Cal) has mentioned and as our staff is continuing to coach our guys. We are talking about execution. We are talking about building each one of our guys up. We are talking about having a very clear mental picture of who they are individually, a very clear mental picture of who we can be as a team, and that is not unlike last year or the previous five years that I’ve worked for Coach Cal. That is what he does at this time of year. We played seven games. In a normal year, we would have played two exhibitions and five real games at this point. So, you’re still trying to build each one of your guys up. You’re still trying to provide each one these new guys that now have seven games of college basketball under their belt. You have to give them the mental picture. You have to build them up. You have to show them what they can be and what you expect them to be as their head coach, and that is what Cal has done and is continuing to do every day and our staff is doing. So, whether you’re doing that in a practice, whether you’re doing that in games at this point you have to provide that for our guys.”

On the team lacking offensive confidence around the basket …

“I think you’d have to ask each one of the guys that are kind of making those plays to comment on that. I think our job is to provide a clear picture of what we want on the offensive end. We want to build each one of these guys up to have the confidence on the offensive end, to know where they’re supposed to be, to have not only the mental picture of what they can do on the offensive end, but also have the confidence that they can go out and execute. That is where on the offensive end you have to have the confidence to go and make plays. Like I said, this is a very young season. Played seven games against human beings that have a pulse, that have a heartbeat, that are trying to stop our guys from scoring. We have the same issues probably every single year against seven games on the offensive end where you have new guys that are playing together, that are competing against other people, that are trying to stop you. And I think we’re getting closer. I think we’re focusing, and Coach Cal is focusing on execution and building that picture in their mind of what they can become both individually and collectively.”

On if the start of SEC play offers a fresh start to the season and has the schedule impacted the development of the team …

“I think to answer your first question, I think for us we take it day by day right now. We’re focused on ourselves. I would have probably answered that question the same way last year at this time if you would have asked me, and matter of fact, I think I have answered it that way. And I think Coach is the same way. We are worried about ourselves. We are worried about getting better. We’re worried about execution. We’re worried about building each one of these guys mental picture of who they are and who we can become and that’s a team that’s going to play hard, that’s a team that’s going to compete on the defensive end and a team, that’s going to execute on the offensive end. When you do those things, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win. And that’s what we’re focused on doing on Saturday is executing, playing hard, and hopefully if you worry about and focus on those small details the big things will come about. The schedule is what it is at this point. You look at the big picture. You lost at this point, I think we’ve lost 1,400 minutes. You lose 200 minutes in an exhibition game. The first time, I don’t know who that team was as I sit here, but you have two of those. You have 400 minutes where essentially there’s no score kept. But most of the time, you can go out, you can make mistakes and be totally penalized for them. And the way that our schedule has been laid out this year, if you make a mistake, you’re going to feel the pain on the scoreboard and ultimately in the win-loss columns. So, I think for us focus on that is not something that we can do anything about. I think for us, we’re coming in here every day, building a mental picture of who we can become individually, building a mental picture of who we can become as a team, and that is focusing on execution, focusing on our spirit, focusing on our togetherness, focusing on who we can become not who we are or where we’ve been.”

On if the program needs to establish more continuity while recruiting …

“I think that Kentucky is not for everybody. We say that. We talked about that in recruiting and our job as assistants or even as a staff is we have to go and find the right people that are a great fit not only for our basketball team, but for this fantastic university, for the city of Lexington and who are going to be great teammates. That’s our job, and when you find those guys, you identify them, you evaluate them and then ultimately you recruit them. So, for us, I think you go into the process, and like I said, you evaluate. You get the most information on them as people. And then you go and then you ultimately bring them in. And I think with our track record of who we have brought here and who we’ve coached and who has quote-unquote made it, I think we’ve identified and then recruited the mission-appropriate guys for what Coach Cal is looking for and who we want to be here. So, I think we’ll continue to do the best that we can in that regard. Like I said, the most important thing is to provide a place for people to chase their dreams, to walk with them, to have their dreams become ours, and to provide them the stage to compete. And I think when you do that, you find the right people and you have their dreams at the forefront of what you’re doing, good things are going to continue to happen.”

On what he’s seen from Mississippi State …

“Well, I think you talk about their size. It jumps off the page at you immediately at all of their positions. They’re a physical team. You talk about a group that looks very similar to North Carolina in terms of how they attack the offensive boards. That’s something that we obviously have to continue to address, and as we went into the North Carolina game, we talked about that with our guys. Our guards, you know, answered, answered the bell that game and I think they’ll have to do the same in Starkville on Saturday. But they have a good group of guards that have returned, that are playing well. They have experienced big guys inside that have played and played well. So, I think it’s a tremendous challenge for our young guys. Like I said, I think we’re mainly focused on ourselves, getting better, working on our execution, continuing to provide the mental picture of who we can become and who we want to be on Saturday.”

On an update on Cam’Ron Fletcher and Keion Brooks Jr. …

“You know, I think both of those guys are doing what they’re allowed to do. As you know, Cal said that everyone has a great attitude and we continue to move forward. So, we’ll see what this afternoon looks like when we practice at 3 o’clock and we’ll go from there.”

On what he means by saying the team needs to have a clear mental picture of themselves individually and collectively …

“Well, I think whenever you’re new, you have a team full of young people, as a coach and as a head coach, what Cal is doing is you’re trying to empower them to play their best. You’re trying to work with them daily to improve their skills, but also play within the framework of the team. When you’ve only played seven games, when you’ve only been together as a group, sometimes that changes. As we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, we’ve had injuries. We’ve had injuries for the whole season. In other cases you’ve had things that change and over the season. There’s ups and downs, and I think for us and for Cal, what he’s just trying to do is to clear things up, talk about execution, and once again just to continue to add a little bit more to what we’re trying to do, but also then sharpen how we do it. That’s the big thing for us because we are close as we’re seen in certain games. I think our guys and their spirit in practice this week has been tremendous. I think for us as coaches, once again, you have to be there with them. You have to let them know that you’re there for them and their job is to work hard and to be a great teammate.”

Isaiah Jackson

On why they need to be “built up” …

“Coming from high school to college, I think we just have to be built up as players in general because it’s two different physicalities with high school and college. So, just us building each other up in practice, I feel like that helps us a lot during the season and stuff like that. When we play other teams that’s like us, we’re already used to playing against tougher guys. It makes it easier for us.”

On who some of his teammates are that are good at building each other up …

“I mean, everybody, from the guards to the bigs. For me, just playing against Olivier (Sarr), Jacob (Toppin) and Lance (Ware) every day, it’s tough. Some of the moves you made during high school, you have to readjust and do other things that you can do to make it easier to score or get your teammates open.”

On how he balances aggressive defense with staying out of foul trouble …

“I was reading an article the other day and it was saying most of my fouls are when my hands are down and not really blocking shots. I feel like if I just keep my hands active and actively moving around, I feel like those cheap fouls won’t be called or anything. If I just play smart, because sometimes I get lazy or tired and just foul. But if I play smarter or if I need a break, tell Coach to sub me so I won’t get in foul trouble.”

On what he would say if someone told him at the beginning of the season that they would lose six of their first seven games …

“I would have told them they were lying, but this is where we are as a team. I mean, league starts Saturday, so I feel like that’s a fresh start for us. These are the games that truly honestly count, in my opinion, to build on to when we get into March Madness, winning the league and things like that. We had a good week of practice this whole week. We’re practicing real hard. I feel like we’re ready.”

On how much they needed a fresh start to set the past aside …

“I felt like we needed one bad. We were just trying to chase a win. Like Louisville, we were trying to pick up our momentum. I just feel like we can start winning. And now everybody on this team has got that mentality of just wining and just trying to win. It’s a fresh start. Everybody’s got the mentality of a fresh start. We’re just going to come out and hoop and do our thing.”

On if he feels like they aren’t confident on the offensive end of the floor and how they build that up …

“I think that has a lot to do with execution on offense. I know you guys probably can’t see it, but when we watch film and stuff, sometimes I’ll be on the wrong spot when we’re running a play and it really messes it up, so it’s hard for us to score like that. That’s all we’ve been working on this week in practice is just execution. Getting in the right spots on offense, running the right plays in transition, getting out in transition of course and just playing as a team. I feel like if we do that, execute every time on the offensive end, we can score. Instead of going on droughts where it’s back and forth where we get a stop and they get a stop, we can execute and actually score.”

On how he gets fired up for Mississippi State …

“Just playing with the same momentum we’ve been playing with. I feel like all the games we were playing, we were executing on defense but we just couldn’t score. After a while, then it was like we can’t get stops on defense. Then they start scoring. It all just breaks down. I mean, it’s a fresh start. We’re still going to come out with that same mentality of going out there and trying to get stops, trying to score. But it doesn’t matter who is in front of us; we’re still going to go out there and just play.”

On if they are doing different things in practice to correct the shooting woes or if it’s just about repetition …

“I think it’s repetition. All this week during practice we’ve been shooting. Especially with Coach, we’ve been trying to work on our shot because a lot of guys dip before they shoot. He was just telling us, ‘When you catch it, just let it go. Don’t dip because it can alter your shot different ways.’ Us, as a team, that’s just repetition. We’ve been working hard every day, so that’s going to get better as time goes on.”

On this group not getting to experience the best part of this fan base so far because of the pandemic and the start …

“I actually deleted social media. A lot of the guys on the team have too. So, I haven’t been looking at it. But after we lost a couple, I mean, they’ve been on us. That’s something that, I feel them, but at the same time we’re just young and we’re still trying to work to come together as a team. It’s just going to take time. As the ball gets to rolling, they’re going to be surprised. We’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

On how important it is for them to finish the easy plays around the rim …

“Yeah, of course. I mean, who wouldn’t want an easy bucket? I feel like those are something that we should just go to every time. If he’s in the post, just give it to him and let him work. If he misses, we’re there to rebound it. I mean, of course we want easy buckets, but I think that’s just us overthinking it on offense and sort of passing it sort of too much. That’s really what messes us up sometimes is just not passing it at all.”

On if he’s watched Mississippi State and what challenge the Bulldogs present …

“I didn’t really watch them, but I heard they’re a big, physical team. Sort of like North Carolina, just big, burly guys who offensive rebound and things like that. I feel like if we execute on offense and rebound, like bigs and guards rebounding, I feel like we can come away with the win. Just getting easy buckets, scoring on offense, executing, we can come out with a win.”

On if they feel beaten down by the schedule and if they needed a breather at some point …

“Not really. I mean, before the season even started, we already knew it was going to be a tough season. In my opinion, with my experience, it didn’t really put me down, but it was sort of a wake-up call because I’m a freshman; this is my first time playing college and I know it’s like that for a lot of people on the team. It’s our first year and we’re just trying to get acclimated to everything.”