EJ Montgomery and his off-season improvements have been one of the main storylines throughout Kentucky’s pre-season as well as throughout the Cats’ two opening exhibition games. The front court is already a bit of a weak spot for the Cats, and Nick Richards’ potentially-lingering injury doesn’t help (get an update on his ankle here). Montgomery didn’t calm the uneasiness, putting up two average performances during UK’s exhibition games – he had five points and five rebounds against Georgetown and six points and four rebounds against Kentucky State.
Simply put, the Cats need to be able to rely on EJ Montgomery. That’s something Calipari says they’re still working on at this point in the season.
“He’s just gotta get better. I mean, I’ve had so many players go through [similar struggles]… Let them learn in those kinds of settings,” Calipari said. “Gotta get in better shape. Until you do that and until you conquer yourself in some different areas, it’s hard to change anything else.”
Part of that process stems from a player’s specific focus, according to Kentucky’s head coach
“Think about rebounding and blocking shots and nothing else. Just do those two things,” Calipari explained. “And then all of a sudden, you start changing. But it’s hard to accept that until you get in and you don’t really do the things you’re capable of doing.”
In addition to rebounding and blocking shots, improvement also begins with toughness. We’ve heard Calipari harp on getting his team “tough” enough for weeks (months?) now, and it’s more obvious than ever he’s sending the message out for Montgomery’s benefit.
“The only thing that we’ve been working on is them understanding what toughness is, and it’s not pushing and shoving,” Calipari said.
He went on to ask a series of questions, setting up a good definition of what the word “toughness” means to him when it comes to basketball and how he expects his team to compete:
“Are you in the kind of shape that you need to be in mentally and physically? Are you beating workouts? Are you conquering yourself? Before you can try and conquer someone else you have to conquer yourself. Are you in the frame of mind that you can be tough? That you’re not going to get pushed off a screen? That you’re not, on a shot, going to run to the rim? That you’re going to have enough discipline and toughness to go hit a body before? Are you going to, on an offensive rebound, run to go get it or are you running back? Are you going to put your chest on his back on an offensive rebound because it’s easier? Are you tough enough to try and get even?
Even though Calipari is honest about Montgomery’s need for improvement (and pretty direct about his toughness criticisms), he doesn’t think there’s reason to sound the alarms. He compared the situation to one a former Cat recently saw. PJ Washington was able to figure things out – it just took a little bit of time.
“PJ [Washington] went through this, if you remember – especially his first year,” Coach Cal said Sunday afternoon. “Oh my gosh, his first year! Do you remember he lost 17 pounds in like January? Like, over a 30 [or] 40-day period he lost all that weight and then he started playing. These kids all go through that stuff.”
Washington wasn’t the only player used in this comparison. Coach Cal and his staff also used LeBron James as an example.
“Are you tough enough to set a screen? Are you tough enough to dive on the floor? How about, like, take a charge?,” Calipari continued to ask. “We just showed them the tape of LeBron James taking two charges in the game. The best player in the world – he took two charges. Then we showed them the five [or] six opportunities that we had that we turned sideways.”
To beat Michigan State this Tuesday, EJ Montgomery doesn’t have to be LeBron James. He just has to be a solid version of EJ Montgomery. Still, anything can happen.
“All of the toughness things, [and] you still don’t know what’s going to come out in this game. You just don’t. I knew we’d have a tough time with Duke last year. I didn’t know it’d be 50 [points], but I thought it would be tough,” Calipari said. “I didn’t know when we beat Duke [in 2015] that we were nearly good enough to beat Duke, which we did. Or Kansas [in 2014] when we beat them like we did. You don’t know walking into these games because they’re so early.”
It took a lot of “Cal talk” to get there, but the very first five words Calipari said about the matter sum it up the best: “he’s just gotta get better.”