Joel Justus filled in for John Calipari on Monday to preview Tuesday’s game against South Carolina. You can watch the entire press conference here or you can read the five most interesting things he said below. It’s totally up to you which path you choose. I prefer the video route when I have plenty of time but the condensed version is an easy read if you’re on the go. Your call. Choose your own adventure.
1. South Carolina’s Chris Silva is similar to Ashton Hagans.
Silva and Hagans play two completely different positions and Silva has Hagans by about six inches and forty pounds, but Justus thinks they’re very similar in how they disrupt. Pests, he called them.
“He’s a little bit like an Ashton Hagans in that he just kind of pops up, blocks a shot, gets a steal, you knock him over and it’s a charge,” said Justus. “He’s just a pest really on defense, very similar to what people are describing Ashton as being. He’s a little bit of, like I said, a pest in the low post.”
2. South Carolina is a good team.
South Carolina’s record is funny: 5-8 in the non-conference and 6-2 in conference for a fourth-place spot in the standings. When asked what’s up with that, Justus called the Gamecocks a good team on the rise.
“I think they are a good team,” he said. “I think they had a couple of bad bounces early. I think they have had a couple of good bounces here in conference play. They are very good. They have some good, young players that are getting experience and older. I think they have big guys that are tough, that are physical, that make you have to play their style of play. Inside, once again, I think some of it is that they have made plays in key points of winning time, both at home and on the road. I think like anything else, teams change. They get better or they get worse. I think you see a team like South Carolina that is getting better as the season goes on.”
3. The Gamecocks will make Kentucky work to get the ball.
Elaborating on his South Carolina scouting report, Justus said of the Gamecocks’ defense, “I think they try to take away catches. They extend your catches out on the floor. Basically, trying to take you out of offense and out of plays. So, it’s a style that sometimes players are more excited to play in the game because it’s a little bit of a hooper’s game. You’re not going to have to run a lot of plays. It’s going to be, are you prepared to go and make plays? I think as a coaching staff, and I think what Cal is going to try to do is put our guys I positions to where they feel comfortable to go and just make plays.”
He then said Kentucky is more comfortable in that setting.
“That is all that you can ask for as a coach is that you put guys in position where they are more comfortable to make plays. Ultimately the guys have to go and make plays. I don’t know how often teams do that with us because we have pretty good players. Sometimes people want us to have to run plays and play offense, which is why I think sometimes our guys eyes light up when we get to play up and down in a high-paced, up-tempo game. What you can’t then do is not guard on the defensive end because it is getting up and down. You then then have guard and you have to have a focus on it and you can then be ready to play offense each time.”
4. There is no talk of tournament seeding.
You and I may be eager to find out where Kentucky will land in the NCAA tournament, but within the Kentucky locker room, the team is only worried about the team. Justus said he hasn’t heard any talk of tournament projections in his five years on the Kentucky staff. John Calipari’s only concern is the now.
“Our biggest opponent is us,” Justus explained, after shrugging off any midseason tournament talk. “That is who we are fighting against right now, every single day. We can’t accept who we are. We have to keep pushing, both individually and collectively. We have to remain hungry. We have to remain humble. That is the biggest challenge that we have when you have young guys. Now, people are talking about them individually, us as a group, that there for a while people were kind of kicking us and talking about other folks and other teams, and rightfully so. There were other good teams out there. I think what we are trying to do is just become better today and then ultimately see where we are tomorrow night at 7 o’clock.”
Reminder: The NCAA will air its first ever Bracket Preview Show this coming Saturday. The top sixteen teams will be revealed.
5. He can’t pinpoint the exact moment PJ Washington turned it on because PJ Washington has been on all year.
When asked about PJ Washington flipping the switch, Justus said Washington has been more focused all year.
“I think PJ’s mindset has been different as the whole season kind of started in June. When we were practicing for the Bahamas, when we had summer practices, PJ was the guy that often times was one of the first guys out to practice. Just like games, I think you see guys become that catalyst that Cal has been longing for. I think with PJ you saw it in practice with his mindset. I think you’ve seen it when we do conditioning and he’s routinely the guy that’s finishing first or second or near the top of every competitive drill that we’re doing. I don’t know that there’s been a time where you say the light came on or an ah-ha moment. The credit goes to PJ on being a steady guy every single day in practice. He’s been tremendous in huddles both at timeouts and what we’ve seen on the floor. You’ve got to have that when you’ve got so many young guys and you have only a couple guys that have game experience, road experience, conference play experience. You’re happy for him that he feels comfortable enough to really step up and be that guy.”