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Joel Justus and John Calipari preview Arkansas Razorbacks

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“My team is getting better and that’s all I can ask.”

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats haven’t had much success on the road this season, but they’ll look to change that in a big way when they face Arkansas on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks are the hottest team in the SEC right now, as they’ve won five straight and are primed for an NCAA Tournament berth. They’re actually very close to Kentucky on the seed line in that 7-9 range both teams are at right now, so Tuesday could have a big impact on who gets a higher seed come Selection Sunday.

Ahead of the game, UK head coach John Calipari hopped on the SEC coaches teleconference to preview Arkansas. Here is a recap of everything he said, courtesy of UK Athletics:

On this week’s matchups …

“(They’re) both really hard games. Arkansas is playing as well as they’ve played all year. (They’ve) only lost one home game. Missouri already beat us. My team is getting better and that’s all I can ask. We’re trying to, you know, just get in a rhythm of how we’re going to play. The kids are trying. But, there’s no break in the schedule. When you look, I’ll say it again, eight or nine teams should be getting into the NCAA Tournament. Eight or nine teams. When we beat each other it should be good. It should be good for everybody. Because of how everybody is playing, no easy wins.”

On the type of matchup problems Arkansas presents to Kentucky …

“They’re going to play a fast game. They’re going to shoot a lot of 3s. The young, big kid (Daniel Gafford) has really gotten better. The last five games he’s playing his best basketball, which makes them a different kind of team, even though they still have four seniors. They’re experienced. They’re good. They’re a really good basketball team.”

On what the Alabama win does for his team’s confidence …

“Well, it helped us. We just had to win a game. Again, you start with Tennessee, we had a lead late and gave it up. We go to Missouri, they beat us pretty good. We have a chance to win at (Auburn). We had a lead with five, six minutes to go and give it up. Texas A&M hit us pretty good. We had a chance with Florida late. Like I told them, I wish I could talk them through an experience but you can’t. They’ve gotta go live the experience themselves. They’ve got to go through it and learn from it. They’ve got to grow from it. They’ve gotta get stronger from it. You can’t skip steps with them. It is what it is. These kids have so many experiences they’ve never been through. They’ve never worked harder in their life in the game of basketball. They’ve never been more disciplined off of the court than they are now. They’ve never been asked to do, both on and off of the court, as much as they’ve been asked. And they’re all freshmen. And then this league has never been stronger, and this is my 42nd year or whatever it is. This is the strongest, by far, this league has ever been. We have the fifth – I’m going to guess the fifth, maybe it’s even higher; it might be the fourth or the third – strength of schedule with all freshmen. So, we’ve thrown everything at these kids, and it’s all experiences. Now, we have to go to a team that plays really aggressive, plays really physical, bumps and grinds, moves the ball, shoots 3ss, flies for rebounds, has unbelievable senior guard play. Has a young, big kid that can play. It’s another experience for us.”

On Arkansas’ motivation since no player on the current roster has beaten Kentucky and with Tuesday being a sellout …

“It’s about like every other team we play – on the road and they’re all sold out. They’re all big games and, ‘This is it, we’ve gotta win this game.’ I would expect them to play and get after it. You’re telling me something with numbers and facts (that) I did not know. I mean, maybe they know it, but I did not know it. It’s going to be a hard one. Again, they’re starting four seniors, we’re starting five freshmen. It’s a hard game for us, but it’s another chance to learn and grow and see where we are. Competitive fight. You know, playing teams that understand what it takes. And like I said, they’re playing as well as they’ve played these last four to five games.”

On what he likes about Daniel Gafford’s game …

“Well, his length and his skillset. He plays – he’s so long and blocking and doing the things that he does, but the biggest thing is he’s not afraid. That’s why, you know, right now he’s averaging 16 or 17 and six the last whatever it is. His numbers are outstanding. He’s one of those guys. When you have someone with that kind of length and that kind of skillset, it’s pretty good stuff.”

On what things he’s looking at with freshmen going against seniors …

“I’m just concerned about us being in a mode, that desperate mode. I’m worried about watching and just saying, OK, are we moving into the roles that we’ve now defined for every player? Are guys accepting how they individually have to play for their team? Are they losing themselves in the team? If they are not playing great individually, is that really affecting their team play? Stuff that we at this point in the year, you have to get by. You have to get by all that stuff. So I’ll be watching, but, you know, like I said, my team is getting better. I don’t know what that means walking into Arkansas. Like they said, it’s a sellout. It’s cup night. You know, red out, white out, whatever they’ll have. You know, they’ll have students hanging out the night before, you know, sleeping in tents. That’s what happens to us. So we understand they are going to play as good as they play. They are not going to give us the game, so you’ve got to go and say we are going to have to try to take a game from seniors, and it’s a hard task. All we are doing is, like I said – you know, they are rolling into the way they individually have to play. And it’s become encouraging, and now we will see where we are on the road in this kind of environment.”

On the importance of ball security vs. Arkansas …

“No, it is. They are going to force some turnovers and they’ll force you into bad situations because they are really good at, I but you can’t have unforced turnovers. You can’t have guys just driving in and losing the ball and saying, ‘My fault!’ You can’t have plays that are not forced because they are going to force turnovers. You know, against Alabama we only had 13 turnovers but nine of them were between two guys and most of them not forced. When we played West Virginia we had six unforced turnovers in the first half. Well, you can’t play West Virginia (that way). That’s why you are down 14 at the half. You can’t play them that way because they are going to force turnovers, and Arkansas will do the same.”


Later in the day, UK assistant coach Joel Justus met with the media to preview Tuesday’s matchup. Here is a video of his presser:

Here is a recap of everything Justus said, courtesy of UK Athletics:

On what UK’s style is as a team this year …

“I think that we’ve always been, since Coach (Calipari) has been here, a transition team. And then also we’ve always had the ability to grind it out, as he might say. If it needs to be a low-possession game, especially as we’re tip toeing here towards March, the possessions are going to decrease in all games. Each possession becomes more important. I think we’re preparing for March, as Cal would say, with his eyes set on that and how we’re going to teach and how we’re going to play. I think we’re a team obviously that can play in transition but also be comfortable playing in a half-court game.”

On if UK had an extra edge in practices leading up to the Alabama game last Saturday …

“I think our guys are embracing how tough this league is night in, night out. There’s no game that you can just kind of roll out and play. I think they understand, and especially on Saturday with Alabama partly just because they played probably against Collin Sexton. They played with him at some USA Basketball stuff. They understood who he was. They’d also played against John Petty on some of the circuit stuff. These guys understand the quality now of everybody in our league; not just the guys that are their age. And that will be extremely important tomorrow night just because of the age difference in some of Arkansas’ players and some of ours.”

On having multiple players who can carry the scoring load when other scorers go out …

“Yeah, I mean Quade (Green) is a tremendous scorer. That’s what we need out of him is to be ready, to be engaged on offense. We’re asking him to do a lot. A lot of these guys are being asked to do a lot. He’s a guy that has always been ready. I think he’s put some extra time in over the last couple of weeks and has earned his success like he was on Saturday. Happy for Quade, but also know that now there’s a responsibility to be ready to do that every game.

On Arkansas freshman forward Daniel Gafford …

“I think he’s extremely active. The guys that are really, really talented, similar to some of the ones that we’ve had here – he can fly up and down the court on both sides. Can impact the game when he doesn’t have the ball, but then when he does have it I think he’s got a tremendous package of offensive moves. But I think before we go into any of that, he just plays really, really hard. That’s something that young guys across the landscape of college basketball struggle to do consistently. He’s been a guy that from, what we’ve seen and from what I’ve seen personally, seems to play hard every single play.”

On Arkansas’ seniors vs. Kentucky’s freshmen …

“Well, I think it has to do with who those guys are in jerseys – the blue ones and the white ones tomorrow night. I don’t know that when the ball is thrown up anyone says this freshman or that senior is doing this or does that. I think it’s how they’re prepared in the days, practices leading up to the game and how they’ve gone into it. What their approach is and what our approach is. That’s what I guess is the most concerning thing for us at this point. OK, what are we doing? What are our guys doing to best be prepared for tomorrow night?”

On what was the best thing the team did on Saturday …

“We won. I think the guys had fun. I think they were excited to be back at home. They were into the preparation. They were into the process that we have now become aware of as young guys of what is necessary to be successful in this league. I think also during the game our guys are now are much more equipped to handle all different, I guess, situations. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been up. We’ve been down. We’ve been up and blitzed like we did at (Texas) A&M. We’ve not shot the ball well. We’ve made shots. We’ve made shots early. We’ve made shots late. We’ve had different guys play well during different times of the game. I think it’s more just a comfort level with our guys that we’re starting to see, and they are comfortable with whatever happens. I think what you’ve seen early in the year is this happened. That’s a first. That happened. That’s a first. For our guys, I think now we’re experienced. We’re still freshmen. We’re still inexperienced sophomores at times, but for them there’s a comfort level for them that is definitely starting to show in their play.”

On if there is a sense of awakening now that they’ve won …

“I think they were excited. They were thrilled to win. I think they knew that it was a big win. I think they knew that Alabama was a very good opponent, I think from playing against some of those guys growing up. I think that through our preparation they were able to see how good Alabama had played. They know that they had had a couple of wins recently against some teams that we had recently lost to. So, I think for our guys understanding how good everybody is and how hard everybody plays – and it’s going to be the same thing again tomorrow night. We’re going to Bud Walton Arena and it’s going to be loud, and you’re going to have a group of guys that have not beaten Kentucky since they’ve been there at Bud Walton Arena. That’s something that I think our guys now understand what is on the front of their jersey and what that means to folks. I think they also understand what the name on the back of the jersey means to certain folks, too. And this is an opportunity for us to play well against said player. This guy is a freshman, this guy is this, this guy is that, like so many guys that play at Kentucky have been used to in the past with the individual awards and accomplishments. There’s a responsibility for the name on the front as well as the name on the back.”

On if they talked about winning streaks or losing speaks before the Alabama game …

“No. Nah, I mean, we talk about just preparing for each game an controlling the things that you can control. And that’s your preparation, that’s your sleep, that’s your habits that you’re building, that’s your eating, that’s your lifting – and get yourself ready. That’s what we talk about. We’re going to go play another game tomorrow night (and0 how they prepare is going to be paramount for what we believe is going to be a big-time atmosphere against an experienced backcourt with a tremendous frontcourt player. We just have to be ready to play each possession and then be ready to play possessions for 40 minutes.”

On what the challenges that Arkansas presents …

“First of all, when they play at home, they play with a great pace. They play with, you know, a fever on defense. They’re a team that really tries to get after you and put pressure on you on both offense and defense. So we have to first be ready for transition. I think that’s always something that’s important down there. And then you’ve got to be alert, and that’s something that, especially our guards, are not always alert off the ball. We’ve got to be ready to play for the entire shot clock.”

On Kevin Knox and PJ Washington having successful second halves against Alabama and if that’s a big step forward after having some trouble in the first half …

“Yeah, I think with this time of the year all of our guys are taking steps forward. You could say that kind of what I just said: off the ball defense is something that we talk with some of our guys about, and, you know, Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) has two big steals down the stretch the other night against Alabama. It’s something that our guys have to understand the next play, and I think with young people that’s what we’re working towards is them moving toward the next play. So yes, I think they were big steps and I think those guys understanding, ‘OK, what’s happened has happened, but there’s going to be plenty of more possessions, plenty more plays to be made and be ready to go and make them.’ ”

On Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon’s play …

“Yeah, absolutely, I think their entire backcourt is very different. They are all unique. But they are three guys who can give you fits at different points in the game, you know, throughout each possession. You know you are going to get hit with all three of them so you gotta be ready, gotta be engaged on the ball, gotta be engaged off the ball. You’ve got to be ready to play fast but then you’ve also got to be ready to play the possession out as well.”

On how the SEC has improved since he has been at Kentucky …

“I think it’s deeper, both individually and with the teams. I think there are really good players, you know, one through eight, one through nine on each team. That’s impressive to me. I think its experience as well. I think you have some guys that have been through the battles of the SEC. And the league has just improved each year. So then those players are getting better. And then flip that back, I think those guys get better by playing against good players, similar to what we talk about here. So I think that is the No. 1 reason why the league is better: the players. The players are what make anybody go. And this is in no disrespect to anyone that was here when I got here but I think you’ve got some really good coaches that have come into the league in the last couple years, and I think that is head coaches and assistant coaches. I think you look across the benches in this league and, you know, are very similar to ours. You have a guy like Kenny Payne who is an assistant coach here. You have a guy like Tony Barbee that is on our staff that has been through the entire walk of college basketball. I think you can find that, maybe not as good as the staff that we have, in my opinion, with those two guys especially, but, you know, across the benches in our league I think you have some very, very good coaches.”

On protecting the ball against Arkansas …

“I think it is the No. 1 thing for us. I think Cal even said that on the teleconference today. You know you can’t have live ball turnovers, you can’t have unforced turnovers where you don’t have an opportunity to set your defense. That is a big part for us in any game. When we have a chance to set our defense, use our length, use our athleticism, we are much better than if we turn the ball over and we are playing at a disadvantage and we allow that team to tilt the court and run downhill at you and you’re going uphill. So its something that is going to be very important for us to take care of the basketball early in the possession and also make sure we get as many quality shots as possible.”