Earlier today, Kentucky Associate Head Coach Kenny Payne met with reporters to preview the Cats’ trip to South Carolina. He spoke mostly about Nick Richards’ progress — comments we’ll share with you in just a bit — but Kentucky’s big man guru had some other interesting thoughts on the team’s state of mind after four straight wins.
His advice for Kahlil Whitney
It’s no secret that Kahlil Whitney is struggling right now. The former top 15 recruit hasn’t scored since the Ohio State game on Dec. 21, and in the past four games, has collected only two rebounds. Regardless, Payne said Whitney’s attitude in practice has been excellent and he is pleased with his effort on the defensive end in Kentucky’s last two outings.
“The first thing is, his character. High, high character kid. Works hard. Tries hard. In situations like this when you try so hard and it’s just not quite working right, you have to take incremental progress. So, for him, it’s being solid defensively. It’s fighting to get rebounds. It’s shooting the ball whether it goes in or not. Shooting the ball with confidence because when you [think], ‘I gotta make this shot. I gotta have something good. I gotta, I gotta, I gotta,’ it doesn’t happen. It’s when you let go and relax and do it with confidence and if it goes in, great. If it doesn’t and you shot it with confidence and you executed it, fine. We’ll live with it.
“I feel confident that he’s going to fight through. I’m happy with the progress that he made the last game, the last two games, really, where he’s showed signs that, ‘I’m going to lock down and be into it defensively.’ We just need a little more.”
…is similar to his advice for EJ Montgomery
EJ Montgomery has been more productive than Whitney this season, but Payne is telling the sophomore big man the same thing: stop focusing on scoring.
“What happens is, guys sometimes want to rely on scoring the ball because that gets your name in the paper. That gets you notoriety. EJ Montgomery is a 6’10” great passer who is now saying, ‘I gotta get a shot. I gotta get a shot. I gotta get a shot.’ You don’t have to get a shot. The shot will come to you. Drive the ball and throw lobs. Drive the ball and make passes, skip passes. Drive the ball and get fouled and make two free throws. Get an offensive rebound.”
Payne knows firsthand how difficult that can be, telling a story from his days at Louisville playing under Denny Crum.
“I played for a coach in college who told me get 12 points, six rebounds and six assists. I didn’t know what that meant – I averaged 35 (points) in high school – but now as a grown man, I look back on it, he’s saying be a complete basketball player. Do the things that your instincts do naturally. Embrace that. And it’s not just centered around shooting the ball. If you take the emphasis off shooting, other things come up that you find that you can get confidence in. Then shooting becomes a non-issue.”
Johnny Juzang is healthy
Juzang missed the Missouri and Georgia games with an illness. He was available for the Alabama game, but John Calipari chose not to play him since he was still getting back to game shape after missing practice. Payne assured reporters that Juzang is close to 100%, but, like Whitney, the staff wants him to focus mostly on defense.
“Johnny is getting better. I think he started practice a couple of days ago. He’s been doing well. Got to work him back into the rotation and see where he helps us. It starts with defense. I know everybody wants to talk about his shooting and he’s known as a shooter, but we need guys that can defend and get us stops.”
Stay disciplined, Ashton
Ashton Hagans is playing at an incredible level right now, flirting with a triple double vs. Alabama, but Payne and the rest of the coaching staff don’t want the praise to go to the sophomore point guard’s head.
“I think Ashton is another example where everybody is talking about national defensive player of the year. Well, from our standpoint, from Coach [Calipari]’s standpoint, it’s not close. He’s not as disciplined as he needs to be to be the best defender in the United States in college basketball. He’s not close. So, we’re on him about that. Like, you’re getting these accolades for doing something that we know, we work with you every day, there’s more. Give it to us. Focus on it because your livelihood depends on it and our livelihood depends on your disciple defensively. Knowing your assignments, doing your assignments.”
“The records go out the window” tomorrow night
South Carolina is riding a three-game losing streak following its upset of then-No. 9 Virginia last month, but Payne knows none of that will matter tomorrow night when Kentucky comes to town.
“Well, I think the first thing is definitely the culture,” Payne said of the atmosphere at South Carolina. “Frank Martin is a tough coach, a tough Miami coach. His culture is physicality, toughness, rebounding, fighting, you’re not just going to walk into his arena and play basketball and it’s free flowing. He’s going to make the game hard. You’re going to get hit at times and you’ve gotta be ready for a fight. If you’re not, the aggressor wins. So, the records go out the window. It’s not about how many games they’ve lost or won. It’s about, do you have a mindset going in there and not being hit and being on your heels. You may have to hit first and not let the physicality take you out of what you’re doing.”