For the fourth time in as many weeks, John Calipari sat down for his weekly call-in radio show with Tom Leach on Monday evening.
Like Mark Stoops does during football season, Calipari uses this time to break down his team’s recent performances, what to expect against future opponents, and update the fans on potential injuries.
This evening, though, Calipari joined the show for just one segment prior to leaving for a team Christmas party, leaving associate head coach Kenny Payne to break things down the rest of the way. The two coaches talked about the charity event going on on Monday evening, Kentucky’s upcoming trip to Las Vegas, and what we should expect from Utah and Ohio State, among other topics.
Here are the ten things we learned during the John Calipari Show tonight:
Kentucky basketball is helping those in need on Monday evening
The reason Calipari left the radio show early? He was with his team helping those “that could use a smile on their face” in the community.
“Because we’re leaving tomorrow and then out until Christmas, I’m heading to the Christmas party we have [annually],” he said. “We gather people that could use a smile on their face, we invite 12 families. Each of our players host a family, and then [with the help of Kroger, Kentucky Branded, and Tempur-Pedic], we give them all [food, clothing, and a bed].”
And while these individuals enjoy the experience, Calipari said his team tends to enjoy it more every single year.
“Let me just tell you, we get way more out of it, our team and staff, we probably get more out of it than these families. We have a lot of fun doing it.”
The road gets tougher starting this week
Kentucky’s trip to Las Vegas marks the beginning of a difficult stretch of games in the immediate future.
And if they don’t play their best, the team knows they’ll head home with two losses.
“[Utah and Ohio State] are two of the better teams we’ve played,” Calipari said. “Obviously Michigan State and Georgia Tech [are good teams], and I should say Evansville since we lost to them. But when you look at Utah, they’ve beaten BYU and scored 143 in a game this year. They’re a team that plays well, plays hard. They’ve got size. Then Saturday, we’ve got [No. 5] Ohio State. I’m surprised they lost to Minnesota.”
Later in the show, when Kenny Payne was asked about the team’s upcoming matchup against Ohio State, he said they can’t even look ahead to that game before taking care of business against Utah.
“I wish we could look past Utah, but as you saw earlier this season [in Kentucky’s loss to Evansville], we can’t look past anybody,” he said. “Anybody can beat us, and we can beat anybody.
Once again, the focus is on “fight” and “finish”
In case you haven’t heard it enough over the last few weeks, Calipari brought back his two favorite words this evening: “fight” and “finish.”
“We’re not that good right now, we’re still learning to fight,” he said. “We’ve got to shift people [from focusing on missed shots] to rebounding and toughness. … Fight and finish. Now we’re going against teams that if you don’t fight, we’ll lose both of these games [in Las Vegas]. [Other successful teams in the nation] are fighting and fouling, we need to do that.”
And like he said last Monday, practices continue to be rough and difficult. In fact, he told his players that they “should be thanking [him]
“Today, we practiced this morning, I made it one of the roughest,” he said. “Told them, ‘You should be thanking me.’ Today, we straightened some stuff up. … Toughness is not just pushing and shoving. Any of you athletes do wall sits? With like a 30 pound weight? And if anyone comes out of their stance, you reset the clock? We did lane slides for 30 seconds. … You’ve got to conquer yourself before everyone else. A lot of running today, a lot of body to body stuff. They were laughing about [how hard it was].”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how talented the players are. If they don’t fight and finish, Calipari knows they’re capable of losing on any given night.
“They need to love doing this. This is what we do here, this is how you get over the team,” he said. “If you’re more talented, and you fight and finish, then you’ll win most of your games. Even if you’re more talented, if you don’t fight and finish, you’ll lose. What I do isn’t rocket science.”
The staff is not going to allow Nick Richards to settle
After Kentucky’s two most recent performances, Calipari was quick to call out Nick Richards for “reverting” and getting “arrogant.”
The numbers haven’t been bad in the slightest, but the Kentucky coaching staff demands more.
“[Some of the players] got arrogant and then they reverted back to losing confidence. Nick had 12 points and six rebounds [against Georgia Tech], in most situations we’d give him a standing ovation. Last year we would have praised that. But he’s capable of scoring 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] a game.”
When Payne took over the show, he also acknowledged the Georgia Tech game was not Richards’ best showing. And it had nothing to do with what the Yellow Jackets were doing to slow him down.
“No question it was a step back,” he said. “Nick is challenged by one person, and that’s Nick. It wasn’t Georgia Tech, it was Nick playing against Nick. When we get Nick to dominate Nick, we’re going to be okay.”
Richards is also working on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hooks
When talking about Richards, Payne told a story about a recent workout he had with the junior center that left Tyrese Maxey dropping his jaw.
In practices and individual workouts, Payne has been forcing Richards to shoot 350 “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hooks” in a row. And with just two sets of eyes watching him – Maxey and Payne – Richards made 345 of them. Only five misses.
“I think the kid, for over the last year, there’s no drill he cant do,” he said. “I had Tyrese watch a workout I had with Nick. We were working on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hooks, and we shot 350 of them. He missed maybe five of them. Every shot his elbow is at least rim high.”
The only problem? He followed it up with ten straight misses at practice the next day in front of the rest of his teammates and coaches.
“I told Tyrese that the challenge will be in practice to see if he can do it again, and guess what? He missed ten in a row,” Payne said. “To his defense, from day one, walking into the door. Then until now, it’s night and day. He’s getting more assured of himself. But we’re not trying to get comfortable with our position, we’re trying to dominate.”
Nate Sestina is almost back, Dontaie Allen is practicing
After several weeks of speculation, Kentucky forward Nate Sestina is close to returning to the floor.
Payne said that while he isn’t sure the exact date, we should see him back in action in “the next week or two.”
“I’m not sure exactly when he’ll be able to play, but he’s getting in better shape,” Payne said. “Starting to run a lot more. My guess is we’ll see him in the next week or two.”
As for Dontaie Allen, he’s practicing, but his timeline is a bit more up in the air. At the end of the day, they don’t want to rush him back too soon and risk another setback.
“Dontaie is practicing,” he said. “And typically, when he practices and goes hard, he’s on a modified practice. If he goes hard, he has to take the next day off. He’s getting more comfortable. But we need to take it slow with him, let him get back and healthy. We don’t want to put him out there at 75-80%.”
Tyrese Maxey – despite his 0-9 shooting night – thrived against Georgia Tech
For most players, an 0-9 shooting night would indicate a bad game. For Maxey, though, he felt it was his most complete game as a Wildcat and was happier with his six-point, seven-rebound, six-assist, two-steal performance than his, say, 26-point season-opener against Michigan State.
“Tyrese came in with a reputation as a big-time scorer,” Payne said of Maxey. “There’s a misconception about what it takes to play well in your sport. Tyrese shut down the other team’s best scorer. For the first time since he’s been here, there was joy in his face because of what he did on defense. He was happy about the way he performed other than his scoring.
“Those are the kind of kids you want to coach.”
Payne is showing Kahlil Whitney film of DeAndre Liggins, he wants to be Kawhi Leonard
Kentucky freshman forward Keion Brooks Jr. has played well in back-to-back weeks, finishing with double digits against Fairleigh Dickinson and Georgia Tech.
And according to Payne, a lot of that can be attributed to his time guarding Richards in practice.
“Im proud of Keion Brooks, he’s playing really well,” Payne said of Brooks. “He’s getting more comfortable on the floor, he’s practicing better, he’s getting more confident going against Nick at the five in practice. He’s getting tougher, being more physical.”
While Brooks is finding his footing, his counterpart on the wing, Kahlil Whitney, continues to struggle.
Despite the adversities, though, Payne thinks he can still be the best defender in all of college basketball. To reach that point, the coaching staff is showing him old tape of DeAndre Liggins from his time in Lexington.
“The last piece of the puzzle is Kahlil Whitney,” he said. “He could be the best defender in the United States. He’s a slasher, he can be a high-motor, high-energy type of player. Always guarding two players at the same time, thinking ahead. As you do those things, that can be your foundation. From there, we can work on shooting and being a better ball-handler. I showed him film of DeAndre Liggins.”
The long term goal for Whitney, however, is to be a Kawhi Leonard-type player, being a star on both ends of the floor.
“His favorite player is Kawhi Leonard,” Payne said. “There was a guy in here from the Minnesota Timberwolves the other day, and he said in Leonard’s first four years, they didn’t want him doing anything other than defense. The only shot he could take was corner threes. We’re trying to get something like that. He told me, “I want to be like Kawhi Leonard,” so the next day, I had 45 clips of Kawhi Leonard ready for him. His foundation is defense, the toughness that he plays with. We talked about his personality. He’s even-keeled. He just cares about playing basketball.”
Ashton Hagans is doing everything
John Calipari has called Ashton Hagans the best point guard in college basketball on several occasions, and Kenny Payne wasn’t being shy about saying the same thing.
“What can’t you say that he’s doing?” Payne asked. “There are times during each game that he puts the team on his back. He’s controlling the game. He spoon-feeds [Nick and EJ]. You’d have to be blind to miss the shots he was creating for those two [against Fairleigh Dickinson]. He’s come a long way, and he’s still just scratching the surface. Now, he’s accelerating and extending, he feels confident going in, hitting bodies, accelerating through [on his layup attempts]. He’s shooting it with confidence.”
What’s the message to EJ Montgomery this week?
Going from scoring 25 points to laying a goose egg on 0-4 shooting the very next game can be a little deflating for a player’s confidence, and the coaching staff is making sure that doesn’t happen to EJ Montgomery.
Their message to him? “Don’t panic.”
“Just don’t panic. It’s hard,” he said. “This isn’t going to be a consistent, every night you’re going to get 25 points. You need to learn that bad things are going to happen, it’s life. Adversity is going to hit. It’s about how you respond. EJ Montgomery is a great player, very skilled. But it’s not about being skilled, it’s about playing with fight and energy, having a high motor.”