The Wildcats are now 3-0 in SEC play (12-3 on the season), and John Calipari still sees plenty of room – and time – for improvement. He may not be able to say it, but Kentucky’s head coach knows his team has “the big four” of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards. That’s who he can realistically count on to show up and perform each and every game. The performances from the rest of the bench are a bit more sporadic.
The key to altering that reality cannot be done collectively; the entire team cannot wake up and decide, as a group, to simply be better.
“The only way my team can get better is if each individual is improving. It’s not like I’m trying to coach a better scheme or we run better stuff than everybody. No. Our individual players are improving. If they are, my team will improve,” Coach Cal said after his team’s win over Alabama. “I’m looking at the three guys I feel are better than they are playing, and I’m saying, if they get it right, and now we have a full complementary [team].”
The identity of those three guys is no secret; EJ Montgomery, Keion Brooks Jr. and Kahlil Whitney are each still fighting to meet expectations, much less exceed them. That doesn’t mean their head coach has given up on them. Not in the slightest.
“I just need them to start climbing the way they need to climb. I hugged Kahlil [Whitney] after and I’m like, “Kid, just stay the course. Please stay the course. I want you to be a stopper on defense, and don’t worry about anybody else. You guard your man. Go grab some rebounds, because you can put your head above the rim. And then on offense, be a finisher. Shoot it when you’re free.”
No one sees what goes on behind closed doors, but it was hard to miss Calipari bear hugging Whitney by the bench as the game clock expired. EJ Montgomery gave reporters another sneak peak when he mentioned his own private meeting with Coach Cal. Montgomery says Calipari pulled him into his office earlier this week to give the sophomore some advice.
“He said to just go out there and have fun. Don’t think too much. That was my main problem; I was just thinking a lot.”
Montgomery, who has often said he struggles with perfectionism and meeting expectations, must have had at least some fun against Alabama. His eight points and six rebounds helped to make up his strongest outing since Kentucky’s game against Utah in mid-December, when the big man recorded eight points and ten rebounds in the loss. Montgomery also earned more minutes against the Tide than he saw against the Cats’ previous two opponents, Missouri and Georgia. Even when he was pulled off the floor during those games, he tried to keep his head high.
“There were guys that were playing well played on the floor [against Georgia]. I just continued to be a teammate and cheer on the team.”
Calipari was complimentary of Brooks after the game, saying “I thought did he some good stuff” and even mentioned Brooks’ jumper that put Kentucky up 2-0 to start the game. Still, he has ways he can work on improving his individual game.
“I would say to EJ [Montgomery], and even Kahlil [Whitney] and Keion [Brooks]: get in the greatest shape of your life. I mean, do all the running. Don’t worry about anything else. Get in shape and then let the stuff happen for you.”
That’s apparently the same advice Calipari has been giving to Nick Richards (until this season, of course). It’s clearly “clicked” for Richards in his third year, who has truly blossomed into a player the Cats can’t win without anymore.
“[Richards] is finally getting in good shape,” Calipari said in the comparison. “He’s not in great shape because he tires out. But he’s in good shape compared to where he could go two minutes and he was done, couldn’t catch a ball, couldn’t get a rebound. Couldn’t get a fight. He’s now in the type of shape that he can sustain it.”
It’s not just these three players Calipari is being tough on or even expecting more from as the season progresses. Point guard Ashton Hagans nearly notched a triple-double against the Crimson Tide, and Calipari said he still wasn’t happy with Hagans’ overall performance. Immanuel Quickley, UK’s leading scorer on Saturday, also sees areas where his own game needs improvement.
“I don’t think I’m a complete player by any means. Defensively just trying to keep getting better each day; keep getting stronger throughout the season,” Quickley said after the game. “Throughout the whole season – throughout these next two months – I just want to get as good as possible and reach my potential.”
There are 16 games left on Kentucky’s regular-season schedule, which gives the coaching staff and the players plenty of time to work out the kinks, according to Coach Calipari.
“I believe in every one of these kids. I wouldn’t have recruited them here. But I’ll tell you, it’s really hard here… But this is what this is. I told each of them: you know what, you decided to come here and you knew this would be this way. So deal with it. I can’t do it for you. I can’t play for you. I can’t build your confidence.”
“I can give you opportunities, but here is my big thing – you have choices to make,” Calipari continued. “If you choose to play like you did in high school, you’re not going to play much. If you choose to play the way the team needs you, you stay on the court. But it’s your choice.”