Kenny Payne took the spotlight from John Calipari in Monday’s pre-Missouri trip press conference in Lexington. UK’s assistant coach spoke for fifteen minutes about the Cats’ win over Tennessee, what’s ahead in Tuesday night’s game in Columbia and a lot more about the team. You can watch the entire thing here or you can read a five-note summary of Payne’s comments below:
1. Winning the SEC is important to this team.
“For this group, I think it means a lot,” Payne said, when asked about the importance of winning the conference. “I think these kids need to know that they are champions, that they are the gold standard of this conference, and not just by our eyes but everybody’s eyes. That’s important. That’s important for them to feel good about the work that they’ve put in, how hard we train, how hard we practice, how hard Coach Cal pushes these kids in order to be a great team, and the result of that is winning. So, as much as we can win, we want to win.”
He said it’s important for the Cats to believe they’re the gold standard because, “when we get into an NCAA tournament, every game is intense. Every game is every possession matters. Defensively, the way that game went against Tennessee is how we have to play in that tournament, so that’s vital. That’s vital.”
2. When Ashton Hagans is locked in, like he was Saturday against Tennessee, Kentucky is really good.
Ashton Hagans broke out of a multi-game funk by playing well against Tennessee, but Payne said it was even more important for Hagans to do it against Tennessee’s star point guard, Jordan Bone, who people consider the best point guard in the conference.
“More than just Tennessee, against what people consider the No. 1 point guard in this conference,” Payne said, “for him to have some success against him was vital because we have been on him about being focused, being disciplined, being disruptive, and it’s hard.
“He’s never worked as hard as he has worked here. He’s never had to focus as much as he is having to focus here, and he is a freshman. There are times when he pouts, we have to address it. There are times when he’s immature, we have to address it. But then there’s times when he is locked in, and that’s has been a big difference in our team. When he’s locked in, we are really good.”
When asked what makes Hagans pout, Payne shrugged it off as Hagans being a normal 18-year-old kid. (Fun fact: Hagans is actually 19, but you get the point.)
3. Grant Williams’ physicality played right into Reid Travis’ hands.
“I think Williams has really tortured this conference with his physical play. He’s dominated this conference, not just this year, last year as well with physical play,” Payne said of Tennessee’s star big man.
But as we saw on Saturday, Williams met his match in Kentucky’s Reid Travis. Payne said Williams’ physical playing style fit right into Travis’ hands, calling Travis a “very physical forward who has really learned to move his feet and be defensive here.”
“It doesn’t always show up in the stats, what he means to this program, but I can only say this to you guys: I can’t imagine Reid Travis not on this team and what he’s meant,” Payne added. “Imagine being at Stanford for the last two years, averaging 20 and eight and nine. You come here, the numbers aren’t the same, but your impact on the program is more because now you’re winning against the No. 1 team in the country. You’re beating teams, and you’re a major part of that, and it’s not centered around you getting 20. You’re playing with other great players. You’re learning to sacrifice, to be a great teammate and to play winning basketball.”
4. It was a “class act” for Calipari to silence the overrated chant.
Payne admitted he had no thoughts on the “overrated” chant, but noted Coach Cal respects all of his opponents, especially Rick Barnes and Tennessee.
“We’re Kentucky, we don’t have to do that,” Payne said of the late-game taunting. “We don’t have to talk about a team being overrated. They do it to us, but we’re not going to do that to them. I thought it was a class act for Coach Cal to do that.”
5. Forcing turnovers will be a point of emphasis in Tuesday night’s game plan.
Missouri has trouble taking care of the basketball, so Kentucky will try to exploit that weakness by really trying to force turnovers. It just so happens that creating havoc is one of Kentucky’s best weapons, thanks to the coaching of Calipari and his defensive-minded assistant, Tony Barbee.
“I think that Coach Barbee and Coach Cal have done an unbelievable job of getting this team to buy into defense,” Payne said. “They work together hand in hand. Coach gives Tony a bunch of responsibilities and different strategies, different ways of guarding different things. And what we found is that is when we are the aggressor defensively and we are swarming, we’re pretty good, which leads into transition baskets.
“That’s the way we want to play. So, the fact that Missouri has shown a tendency to turn the ball over, our job is to pressure them, and we have to pressure them without fouling and allow that to get us in transition where our young players are comfortable, and they are really fast and they are really athletic and they are tough to deal with. This team, when we are getting transition baskets and we are playing free, it’s a different atmosphere. Ashton Hagans starts that with his on-the-ball defense, and then when we get the rebound or a steal in his hands and he flies up the court, we are different.”
Sounds like a good plan for tomorrow night. Let’s do that.