Before Kentucky faces off against #1 Tennessee Coach John Calipari and players Keldon Johnson and EJ Montgomery talked to the media. They discussed focus, Ashton Hagans and Tennessee’s front court.

John Calipari 

Keldon Johnson 

EJ Montgomery 

Transcript from UK Athletics 

Head Coach John Calipari

On how he sizes up the game tomorrow …

“Be a hard game. They’re good. They’re not going to beat themselves. They’re physical. They fight for second and third opportunities to rebound. We’re struggling with rebound attempts right now. They are going three and four jumps at a ball. If you don’t block out they’re jumping over your back. I mean, they’re going to tip and grab. They’re good. They deserve to be the No. 1 team, and they deserve to have the winning streak they have.”

On who else on the Tennessee roster jumps out at him other than Grant Williams and Admiral  Schofield …

“They’ve got a deep team, and their guard play, the way they shoot and the things that they do – they’re not winning with one guy or two guys, they’re winning because of how they’re playing. The biggest thing is, because they lead the country in assists – their assist-to-turnover ratio – they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re going to create great opportunities and they shoot the ball well. You better play a good game. That’s what I tell you. You better play good. Better not be any tentativeness. Just let it go and go play.”

On the challenge ahead for Ashton Hagans and how much he thinks could be decided on that match-up of Jordan Bone and Hagans …

“Well, Ashton (Hagans) the last three games has not played well. Matter of fact he’s not played well at all. This is a game where we’re going to need him to get back to where he was 10 days ago, 12 days ago when everybody was talking about him as the best on-ball defender in the country, a difference maker, a creator, he pushes. That’s all gone away, so we need that back. He knows it. He’s a freshman. He hit a little bit of a wall. Like you said, Bone is playing fast. I mean, he pushes that ball. He either throws it ahead or drives for a layup. They’re playing good. Rick’s (Barnes) doing a great job with this team, really.”

On why Hagans has taken a step back …

“Probably hit a wall as a freshman. Probably hit a wall. You look at it and just say, you understand this is all happened in 10 days, 12 days. So, if you want it back, what were you doing 10 and 12 days ago that you’re not doing now? Just change it.”

On if that wall for Hagans is mental or physical …

“I just think you get tired. You lose focus. You get numb. Every game we play is the same. It’s someone’s Super Bowl, it’s an out-of-this world game, stadiums filled, other teams are playing out of their minds and you kind of get numb to it, and all of the sudden you’re not playing with the energy, the focus that you need to play with. Like I said, he’s had a heck of a year. He’s just had a bad week and a half.”

On how Tennessee is an older team and how the Volunteers show cohesion …

“That’s why they create good shots for each other. That’s why they don’t beat themselves. That’s why they’re physically tough. They’re good. I mean, they’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason, and they’re the No. 1 team in the country that’s on a big-time winning streak.”

On if his “best guy” knows what to expect from Tennessee …

“I’ll be honest with you, Nick (Richards) played well in the championship game too, the tournament championship where we beat them. Nick played well. PJ (Washington) has had good games against them.”

On if the team has moved on from the LSU loss …

“I hope so. I mean, I have. Usually, if I move on, they’ll move on. I’ll grieve for 24 hours and then I move on. It was a game that you play like we did in the second half against them and against Mississippi State, I saw it coming. I talked about it at the Florida game, and I think you almost have to get knocked in the mouth and take a loss. I texted them probably two hours after the game and basically said it’s tough losing, but we needed this because people were moving in the wrong direction and not listening to what we were saying. We went from the defensive team in the country to giving up layups. How does this happen? To giving up baskets or not rebounding or playing a half and then the second half not playing. So how does that happen? Most of it is mental and most of it becomes what I had talked about nine days ago, eight days ago. There becomes an arrogance when you’re winning and we kind of got away from what makes us good, including individual players. Hopefully that’s a great lesson going into this game. I hate losing, but if you need to get rocked, then so be it.”

On if Kentucky has a physical edge because of who the Wildcats have played in comparison to the who the Vols have played …

“No, because they’re beating everybody pretty good right now. Their numbers have not changed game to game. They beat Alabama at home, who beat us. So, no. They’re good. They’re a team, if they keep going like they are and stay injury free, they’re going to be one of the last teams standing.”

On why Tyler Herro has shot it better on the road than at home …

“I don’t bring it up. This is a game that you can’t miss wide open, like 1 for 8 from wide open 2s. Like you can’t do that. Alabama stayed in the game (vs.) because they made 3s and they gave themselves (a chance). You don’t have to make them all, but you can’t walk into the game and go 0 for 2 from 3 and go, ‘Let me play.’ Stop, you have to make some shots in this game. You don’t have to make them all, but you can’t go 2 for 25 or you have no chance. You have to make some shots. Alabama made shots, and then to be honest with you, as I watched the tape at the end, then they missed shots. They missed four 3s in a row, and then they lost. They force you to make some jump shots. But, this is one of my best 3-point shooting teams. I don’t care about the stats. I’m telling you, I know my teams. That’s why it’s not something I worry about. But guys have to shoot the ball with confidence like they do in practice. I stopped Jemarl (Baker Jr.). ‘You never shoot like that in a game. I saw confidence before you shot it. You go in a game and miss badly. How? Why? You have to conquer yourself.’ I’m telling all these guys. Tyler the same thing, Keldon the same thing. Immanuel (Quickley) makes 70 in a five-minute drill and then doesn’t shoot it confident. What’s holding you back? You’re missing badly, which is demoralizing. And that’s why I said there’s a lot of growth left in us. And a lot of it’s a confidence that if you’re going to be one of the last teams standing, there’s a confidence.” 

On the loss to LSU …

“I loved how we finished the game against LSU. We finished with confidence. You can’t only be confident when you’re desperate. You have to play that way. With young teams, it takes time. It takes time to get that through. Last year’s team got it in March. This team seemed to get it early, now they’ve stepped back. You have to get that back.” 

On this game being big for the Southeastern Conference race and what it means for the bigger picture …

“To me, nothing. You guys know.” 

On why it doesn’t mean anything …

“Jerry (Tipton), have you been cutting grass all this time? Have you not watched? The bigger picture is always for us later. Whether it’s the league tournament or the league, yeah, we want to improve our seed and all that stuff and we want to be the best that we can be, but that’s not the emphasis here. “

On if the challenge in playing EJ Montgomery more minutes has to do with pairing him with PJ Washington …
“We can (play them together), but you know, I think Nick has to keep finding time. He’s a shot blocker, he’s a difference maker. I keep telling him, I really appreciate him because he has a great attitude even if I’m not playing him as much maybe as I should be. You keep telling guys that you want them to think that they are being evaluated by their offense, but 99 percent of these kids are not; they’re being evaluated by other stuff. Nick has been good and EJ has been good. This game, again, who can play in a roughhouse game? We’re not going to know, until the game starts.”

On if Washington’s foul trouble issues recently are cause for concern against a physical Tennessee team …

“He plays alert and he plays before his guy catches the ball. If he’s playing after the guy catches it or playing after it hits the rim then he’ll have trouble. I think he’ll be fine. Last couple of games his rebound attempts have gone down. Rebound attempts, which means your rebounds have to go down. If you’re not attempting to rebound, you’re not going to get the ball. It’s like one of those little things. Those have gone down, and I’m telling him, you have to get those attempts back up. Doesn’t mean you have to get every ball, but you have to attempt to go get every ball.”

On if rebounds attempts are one of those things where he foresaw a step back coming …

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. The shot goes up, they’re running the other way. That’s not attempting to rebound. Sometimes a guy makes a shot and thinks, ‘Well, I don’t have to do this other stuff.’ Again, like I’m saying to these guys, great practice yesterday and let’s have a great one today and let’s see where we are against the best team in the country.”

Quotes from UK Athletics 

#3, Keldon Johnson, Fr., G

On big games …

“That’s what we’re here for. We came to Kentucky to play big games and I think everybody’s prepared, everybody’s been in the gym working, learned from our last game and I think if we come and do what we do I think we’ll be fine.”

On what they learned against LSU …

“Just that we shouldn’t have been put in that position towards the end. I think that we definitely—when we went over film, we definitely had a lot of plays that wasn’t so good that led to their run. It was just a lot of mental lapses.”

On what the last few days since LSU have been like …

“We put that behind us. We learned from it, like I said, we put it behind us and we got our eyes set on this game tomorrow.”

On how long it takes to get over a loss like that …

“You gotta get over it pretty quick. We got another big game coming up. That’s every game in the SEC. Lose, win or draw, you gotta get over it pretty quick and prepare for the next game coming up.”

On how to combat Tennessee’s experience …

“Just come out and play and play together, have each other’s back through the whole game. When things get tough, stay by each other’s side and just stay together. I think we’ll be fine.”

On how he can tell the team is over the loss …

“We had a great practice yesterday. We all came in focused, a lot of energy, ready to play and you can just tell on everybody’s faces that everybody was still locked in and they’re ready for the game tomorrow.”

On whether Tennessee reminds him of any other teams …

“They’re their own team in their own right. They’re pretty good. We know that. We know what we’re getting ourselves into tomorrow. We know we’re preparing for a war.”

On whether PJ Washington has told them anything about the game …

“Yeah. He definitely told us it was going to be a tough game. They played them three times last year. It was tough all three times and we just know we gotta come in prepared, locked in and ready to play.”

On whether Washington and Nick Richards have been more vocal this week based on past experience …

“Everybody knows the importance of every game in the SEC. I think that we’re just coming in with the mindset just to be focused and take in everything the coaches are giving us so we can go out there and follow the scouting report and do as the coaches are telling us to do.”

On what allows them to rise to the occasion in big games …

“We just start with defense. That’s with any game we play, not just nationally televised games or any of the games we play. It starts with defense, on the defensive end. When we lock in and play on the defensive end, we’re a pretty good team. When we don’t do that so much, not many good things happen.”

#23, EJ Montgomery, Fr. F

On how practice has been going since Tuesday’s loss …
“Tough practice the next day, going at it, competing in practice, just getting ready for the next game.”

On if Coach John Calipari was upset with a particular thing on Tuesday …
“Just that we put that on ourselves, we shouldn’t have gotten in that position. But we have to move on and focus on the next game.”

On if he and PJ Washington are working together, on the same team, in practice …
“We haven’t been. We go at each other every day, just try to get each other better. But we haven’t been on the same team.”

On his rebounding …
“That’s what I try to do when I get out on the court, just focus on getting rebounds and playing defense and just letting my offense come to me.”

On if the team is more motivated after losing on Tuesday …
“I think we were going to come in motivated regardless. But, losing that game just has us with more fire to win the next one.”

On what he knows about Tennessee’s frontcourt …
“I just know they are a very physical team. They’re going to go out there and play hard.”

On if it’s hard to go up against a player who isn’t as tall, like Tennessee’s Grant Williams …
“Yes, but I go up against different players every day in practice, Reid (Travis), Nick (Richards) and PJ help me get prepared for any player.”

On what the team learned from Tuesday night, as a team …
“We just have to keep fighting throughout the whole game and never let up.”

On if there was one particular thing that led to the team losing the second-half lead against LSU …
“I just think we got lackadaisical on defense. We let guys get to the rim easy, but we’ve been working on that every day.”

On how tough it was to get over Tuesday’s loss …
“It was a tough loss, but we got back in practice the next day, worked hard and are preparing for the next game.”

On how much more important this game is now after a loss …
“This game is a very important game. We’re trying to go out there and win every time we step on the floor.”

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