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Wildcats preview 2018-2019 season

These Cats are ready for a special season.

Drew Brown - A Sea of Blue

It’s the eve of Big Blue Madness, and what better way to start than with the University of Kentucky Men’s basketball’s Media Day.

Head coach John Calipari and his team took time on Thursday to meet with the media as their 2018-2019 season is just around the corner.

Facing high expectations yet again in the Bluegrass, here’s what the young (but wise) Wildcats’ had to say.

Quade Green, a returning sophomore point guard, is expected to become the floor general for Calipari. Last season, Green was mostly overshadowed by the late-season heroics of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Upon Green’s return, though, his value to the team is truly significant. While defense is far from his specialty, Kentucky has plenty of gritty, long defenders. Green’s shot-making from behind the arc and ability to break down defenses with his ball-handling should be an efficient compliment to that of Herro.

Speaking of Herro, he’s one of many freshman that will experience their first Big Blue Madness as guys on the court. Here’s what Green had to say.

“They’re going to be shell-shocked,” Green said. “They come out there – they think they’re going to be dancing. They come out and they’re going to see they’re not going to be dancing anymore,” he said.

Ashton Hagans, the youngest player on the team, is specifically known for his defense. On Thursday, he gave the media some insight on what makes him such a great defender.

“I just like it. It’s easier for me to steal a basket,” Hagans said. “If my team needed it bad I’m going to give it up on the floor and give it all I got and just play defense. Try my best to get the easy steal,” he said.

Hagans went on to say that it’s not about having faith in Calipari as to it’s simply trusting him as a coach.

As far as working his way into the starting lineup, Hagans was team-friendly in that regard too.

“Whether you start or not, it’s just come in and leave everyone on the floor,” Hagans said. “Play for my brothers and just give it everything I got. Just excited to get here and play,” he said.

Like Hagans, defensive stopper Keldon Johnson is experiencing his first time as a Wildcat. Johnson was one of Kentucky’s best player during their exhibition in the Bahamas and he seems to be satisfied with the team’s direction.

“I think the team is doing pretty good right now,” Johnson said. “We’re playing together and doing what we need to do to win. I think defensively we can be really good. We are all very competitive and we like to get after each other. Each day we’re working harder and because we know what we want,” he said.

Being one of the best lockdown defenders in the country, Johnson considers himself a “big competitor.”

“When I’m on the basketball court that’s my happy place,” Johnson said. “I don’t like losing regardless whether that’s basketball or not. So when I get out there I want to win regardless of the situation,” he said.

Arguably the most interesting piece to the potential national championship puzzle is sophomore Nick Richards. The big man returns for his second season under Calipari with expectations to immediately impact the team, starting against the Duke Blue Devils in the season opener.

“We are just happy to play them for the first game of the season,” Richards said. “It is going to be one of the most televised games of the year. It is two really good programs, Duke and Kentucky. When people think of basketball schools, they think of Duke and Kentucky. So we’re really excited and I’m just happy to be playing basketball for Kentucky again,” he said.

Newcomer via a graduate transfer, Reid Travis, has been going up against Richards quite often in practice.

“I wouldn’t say he bruises me up. We usually go back and forth with each other. We play to make each other better,” Richards said.

An under the radar candidate, as far as incoming freshman, is Immanuel Quickley. Quickley led the team in assists down in the Bahamas and will likely see quality time running the point this season for Kentucky.

Generally, though, Quickley has taken his early time with UK to perfect his overall craft.

“You know, you can never be a perfect basketball player – ball-handling, shooting, defense,” Quickley said. “Playing the point guard position is a lot different from high school than college, so I’m just working on everything,” he said.

The lone senior on the team is fan favorite, Jonny David. During his first three years at Kentucky, David’s only appearance against the Blue Devils came during his freshman season. For fans, the matchup is their Super Bowl but for David... it’s just a game.

“I feel like people in the state, I say they do more,” David said. “As a player you kind of just think, ‘OK. It’s a game.’ You try to just play the best you can and win, but I’d say people like to build it up and stuff like that. We’re here just getting better every day and it should be a good game,” he said.

Another guard on the team of which his role is partially unclear is Brad Calipari. The coach’s son can absolutely stroke it but on a team that was desperate for shooting last season, he didn’t find the hardwood very often.

However, despite his in-game action, Calipari knows this team’s true potential.

“We’ll be able to push the ball, you know. We play at a high pace – most of the teams do here,” Calipari said. “Our shooting ability this year – we have a lot of guys that can shoot the ball, which is also very important if we want to play how we want to play by getting in the lane, get layups and being able to shoot the ball up the court for guys to get the basket,” he said.

Perhaps the dark horse candidate to be the X-factor of the Wildcats is Jemarl Baker. Baker’s name got lost in the shadows last season after failing to see any minute due to multiple injuries.

However, after taking the offseason to heal, Baker gave some insight on his path of returning to form.

“My family, the coaching staff, the players, just everyone helping be positive and telling me to stay positive, keep smiling and be myself,” Baker said. “I’ve just been working hard and now I’m where I want to be. I’m happy. I’ve been motivated my whole life but, the injury just put a big chip on my shoulder and I’m ready to get playing,” he said.

There will be much consideration by the end of the season if Tyler Herro is indeed the biggest fan-favorite ever at Kentucky. After lighting up the Bahamas and becoming the apparent diamond-in-the-ruff for Kentucky, Herro is ready to do his job.

“Being whoever Coach Cal wants me to be,” Herro said. “Right now, I’m competing in practice against Keldon (Johnson), so I am just making him better, he’s making me better. Whatever it may be, just competing every day and getting better,” he said.

Kenny Payne’s son, Zan, has been an under-the-radar addition this offseason. Being the second coach’s son on the team, he’s already began to appreciate the Big Blue Nation.

“It’s amazing. The crowd gets really loud and excited,” Payne said.

Getting back to Travis, Calipari will have a player he’s never had at Kentucky: a seasoned veteran on the floor and in the paint. Kentucky has always had talented big men, but you’d have to dig all the way back to Josh Harrellson and Patrick Patterson to find veteran big men Calipari has had the luxury of coaching.

With the Cats heavily practicing ahead of the season, Travis has wisely been a sharp listener.

“Catching the ball with two hands. It’s one thing I had to learn coming here. He’s really big on that,” Travis said. “You don’t stick one arm out to catch a pass. You catch it with two hands every time. I guess he has some stories about losing games because a guy tried to catch it with one hand. (The ball) got taken away, and I guess they lost off of that,” he said.

Another tower in the middle of Kentucky’s side of the court has drawn Anthony Davis comparisons. EJ Montgomery, a young but talented freshman, has already experienced the intensity that comes with Kentucky basketball.

“I was definitely surprised,” Montgomery said. “It’s definitely another level of intensity. All these guys work, and we’re going to be a good team this year,” he said.

As for PJ Washington, he brought that same intensity during every single game last season. As the focal point of the returning players under Calipari, he’s noticing how focused this group is.

“Everybody’s more focused. You can tell these guys want it more. Everybody is in the gym every night. We all want our craft to get better, which makes the team get better. We just want it more I would say.”

Big Blue Madness is set to tip off Friday night with the Blue-White game the following week and then exhibition games leading up to Kentucky’s matchup with Duke. Football has certainly kept Big Blue Nation’s attention but before they know it, UK fans will be filling the seats at Rupp Arena.