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John Calipari and Wildcats preview Tennessee

Kentucky will look to defeat Tennessee in what should be the best Rupp Arena atmosphere pre-COVID-19.

John Calipari. Davion Mintz. Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

The No. 18 Kentucky Wildcats will look to score their first top 25 win of the season Saturday when they host the No. 22 Tennessee Volunteers.

Ahead of the game, head coach John Calipari, senior guard Davion Mintz and freshman guard TyTy Washington met with the media Friday to preview the big matchup. Here is a recap of what they had to say via UK Athletics.

John Calipari

On if Sahvir Wheeler practiced …

“He did practice yesterday.”

On if Wheeler will play …

“My guess is, unless something happens today at practice, that he’ll be available tomorrow.”

On releasing a statement about the encouragement of masking …

“I don’t know if it was divisive, but I knew it would make people mad at me. But, yeah, I’ve had a lot of people mad at me for a long time and so I’m fine with that. But here’s what happened: I called Dr. (Eli) Capilouto. I said, ‘Talk to me about what’s happening on this campus and what do you think? What other measures we can take to mitigate?’ He said, ‘This thing you really don’t know, but I would guess that the next two to three weeks it is going to be hot.’ Then our hope is it goes down. I said, ‘Well, we’re boosted. We’re vaccinated. We’re mitigating.’ I said, ‘What else?’ He said, ‘KN95 masks would be the best, and if you can convince them to wear it, I think that will do what it can to help.’ Now, that’s why I said it. We all, staff and players, have the KN95s. Ellen (Calipari) ordered online. And you’re right. Like, you go into Rupp, and I’m not going to mandate masks. I’m saying, let’s do this collectively for our state. Now, 91% of the faculty and staff and students are vaccinated on this campus, which means if they get it, they’re not going to get a major issue. But you still don’t want them to get it because there’s so much, we don’t know about this thing. But it’s blowing through our state right now. It is. And wearing a mask, being vaccinated, having a booster helps. And it helps protect everybody. Now, that may make you mad, I don’t know. It ain’t political. I’m not – no one really knows – I’ve never really talked about where I am politically. Everybody thinks they know, but they don’t know. This isn’t political. This is more, let’s stay safe. Somebody told me they got mad because I said two weeks. I only said that because everybody’s saying it’s going to be hot. How about this? Maybe it’s three weeks. Maybe it’s one week and we see it decline and we’re able to move back. But that was my reasoning, and I knew it would make some people mad, but I think it was the right thing to say. I’m not trying to aggravate anybody. I’m not trying to play politics. Just trying to keep people safe.”

On if people will respond favorably to his encouraging of masking …

“Well, we beat Vandy so they’ll probably listen more.”

On what the biggest benefit was to TyTy Washington Jr. in Wheeler’s absence …

“It made him more aggressive. Can’t be afraid to make errors. You’re not being taken out for missed shots. If you don’t work, if you don’t sprint, if you don’t attempt to rebound, if you get absolutely bullied, you’re coming out. Not because you make an aggressive play, and the ball doesn’t go in; you’ll come out for not shooting balls more than you will for missing shots. You want to talk TyTy, what about Davion (Mintz)? Davion has played out of his mind. There’s one guy late in the game that I would say that I’m really comfortable with shooting the ball, and it would be him. But he’s fighting. He fights the post. You know, he’ll make a couple of plays a half where he can’t help himself. It’ll be just come down baseline and look away, throw one through four guys legs, one or two a half. I’ve just got to accept. But the rest of the time, he’s doing all of the right stuff. Engaged the practice plan, engaged in the scouting report. Now you have he and Ty(Ty) elevated. Hopefully it helps our team.”

On Tennessee’s Rick Barnes having success against Kentucky …

“John (Clay) you kind of had an echo, but I think you said Rick (Barnes) has had some success here, and he has. His teams are physical, they’re well coached, their shot selection, their ability to rebound when you see it, it’s a cross-body block-out. I mean, they’re coming at bodies, and that’s been his game. If you’re not ready to physically play, you’ll stand out in this game. Everybody in the gym will say, ‘Get him out, can’t play in this game, it’s too physical.’ But, you know, he’s got good players. He has always had good players. Like I told him, he’s done yeoman’s work. And now, you guys know I hate playing friends. But, you know, it’s the next game so let’s play it.”

On Tennessee winning two straight at Rupp and if that gives UK any added motivation …

“If I had a veteran team that had been through two of those, I would say yeah. If I asked this team, ‘How many games has Tennessee won in a row in our building?’ They’ll say, ‘I have no idea.’ So, it’s kind of a different deal. Like, this game is a rivalry. Well, they haven’t been here. Most of the games that are rivalries are more a rivalry on the other side than with us. It’s just how it is. This game, I think they understand that these are two good teams. Last year, you know, I think we’ve had some success up there. Maybe? I wouldn’t know. But he’s a good coach. It’ll be, it’s going to be a war. It will not be won in the first five minutes unless they’re on absolute fire. It’ll be a 40-minute, who-has-it-last kind of game. Now, let me say this to our fans: Get there early so we don’t have all of the complaints, and we’ll make sure Shaedon (Sharpe) is on the court working out and you can say, ‘I saw Shaedon.’ And it’ll be like, what is that book? Where’s Waldo? You can say, ‘Where’s Shaedon? I saw him. He was on the court. I was down there watching him warmup.’ ”

On improving in the last four minutes of the game …

“Well, we’ve really been working on it, so it showed that last game [said sarcastically]. The work that we put in. [Laughing)]. I think it was 16-0 in four minutes, so the job that I’ve done to teach them the last four minutes has been really good. Whatever I was doing, I better try something different. But that’s why you need to be in good games, physical games, games that you’ve got to finish off at the end. Games on the road where you’ve got to finish off at the end. These are all experiences for us. Just like I don’t want players to do this game to game, you want to know are we getting better as a team. Are we finishing better? Yeah, you want to win every game you play, but you can’t put the weight of the world on one game either because it’s a long season. You’re seeing a lot of people now getting beat. You’re seeing scores that shouldn’t be close that are really close because we’re in the middle of conference play. Conference play is way different.”

On the upcoming schedule …

“That’s the great thing about playing the games: We’re going to find out. I’m worried about one game: Saturday at 1. How do we play in this game? That’s the only thing I’m focused on. I don’t even know who the next game is. I know it’s hard because everybody has told me, ‘Your next four games are a gauntlet.’ But I’ll figure it out after 3 o’clock, who’s the next game?”

On if Shaedon Sharpe counts as one of the scholarship players and can put the team in a situation where it is forced to play him in a COVID situation …

“I don’t know. I mean, if he’s not ready to play I would not put him out there. I mean, I would say, ‘Come on. This kid just came here, how do you make us (play him?) You can’t do that to the kid.’ Unless he’s ready. If he’s ready I say, ‘Let’s go.’ But he practiced yesterday. He’s going to practice today. We’re doing stuff with him. He–pace of game, like a normal freshman, the speed, the intensity, the spirit of it, talking more, he’s way behind in those areas. But his skillset and what he does – and he’s comfortable when you put him in different situations – he’s good there. But it’s the most important stuff: the speed of the game, the aggressiveness of the game, how hard you have to play and talk. You can’t take possessions off, you just can’t. And so, he’s learning all of that. And we’ll learn it on the run.”