Associate head coach Kenny Payne took over the pre-Alabama press conference for John Calipari today, and, as always, had some great insight into what has been a transformational period for this Kentucky Basketball team. What does this group need to do to become a championship-caliber squad? Here’s Payne’s recipe.
Ashton Hagans: Be a “pest”
The freshman guard has flourished in recent weeks, assuming ownership at the point guard position and creating havoc for opposing squads. For Kentucky to go far, Payne said Hagans cannot let up.
“He has to be a pest defensively. He has to get people shots. He has to push the ball in transition and he has to control the offense. That’s his role.”
Payne said the grind of Camp Cal improved Hagans’ conditioning, which is already translating on the court and gives him faith there’s yet another level the pesky freshman can reach.
“The scary part is 50 percent. There’s 50 percent more in him.”
EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards: Spell the other bigs
Whereas Reid Travis and PJ Washington have mostly figured their roles out, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards require a little more work. Calipari mentioned using EJ as part of a three-big lineup a few weeks ago, but Payne thinks he and Nick are best coming off the bench to give Reid and PJ a breather.
“There was a stretch in the first half of the Louisville game where him and Nick (Richards) were out there together and the lead expanded and it gave PJ (Washington) and Reid (Travis) time to rest. We need that from them because if we’re going to play games and Reid is playing 37, 38 minutes and PJ’s playing 35, 36 minutes, they’re going to wear down. We need them playing somewhere between 28 and 32 minutes. So, that means EJ and Nick really have to be a pivotal part of what we’re doing.”
Nick Richards: Don’t get beat to the ball
Payne knows Nick Richards’ game better than anyone and insists that for Kentucky to make a run, they need the sophomore big man to play well.
“I just think Nick is headed in the right direction. Again, the first half of the Louisville game, he had positive minutes. Something happened where somebody beat him to a ball for a rebound. Well, in the second half of games, when it’s an eight- to 10-point game and can go either way, you’ve gotta have that ball. And we needed him to have that ball. So Coach took him out and told him, ‘These are the pivotal moments where you’ve gotta perform, that you’ve gotta produce. Nobody’s going to outwork you to get the basketball.’ His role is going up. He’s going to be fine.
“We need him. Not we want him. We need Nick Richards to be really, really good for us to go far into the tournament.”
PJ Washington: Defense and rebounding
Consistency isn’t exactly PJ Washington’s strong suit, but in recent games, he’s managed to fill up the stat sheet in other areas when the shots wouldn’t fall, which Payne called a sign of championship basketball.
“We don’t want players here that can go score 30 points a game, get two rebounds and one assist. You can’t help us win a championship with that. Get 15 points, get eight rebounds, get seven assists, get three blocks. When I look at PJ Washington’s defensive numbers and rebounding numbers, two or three steals and four blocks and eight rebounds, I’m saying, ‘Dude, do that every single day of your life and you’ll have a long career.’”
Win on the road
Kentucky did well in its first true road game at Louisville. Payne said how well they respond to the “Everybody’s Super Bowl” tour of the SEC will speak volumes as to how far they go in March (and hopefully April).
“I just think that anytime you’re playing on the road, the true test of a player, the true test of a team is can you go on somebody else’s court and have success? As a player, I wanted to be the player that had better games on the road than I did at home. I hope that we teach these guys that. Because playing at home is one thing, but if you’re going to be a championship team, you’ve got to go into the other team’s home and beat them. Find a way to beat them. And it doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be a W.”
Saturday in Tuscaloosa sounds like the perfect place to start.