First place in the SEC will be on the line Tuesday when the 10th ranked Kentucky Wildcats travel to Baton Rouge to take on the LSU Tigers.

Kentucky enters play with a one game lead over both LSU and Auburn.

Tuesday will mark Kentucky’s lone scheduled matchup with the Tigers this season. They last met in February of 2019 when LSU won at Rupp Arena after a Kavell Bigby-Williams scored on a tip-in as time expired.

Entering play, Kentucky has won four straight with their most recent victory coming Saturday when they escaped an upset bid from Ole Miss with a 67-62 win.

As for LSU, they’re coming off a rough Saturday in Tuscaloosa, where they fell to Alabama by a final score of 88-82 for their third loss of conference play.

With a critical showdown looming, Kentucky’s Tony Barbee, Keion Brooks and Nate Sestina met with the media to preview the matchup.

Read what they had to say with a transcript from UK Athletics.

ASSISTANT COACH: TONY BARBEE

On the close wins and losses this season preparing the team for tournament play …

“Well, of course we would prefer them all to be 20- or 30-point blowouts. It makes the bench a lot more comfortable. But no, it does, especially for the young guys. We’ve got a veteran group of guys that have been through it and know how to handle it. They have been carrying us through a lot of these situations, and it’s good to see the freshmen get the much-needed experience because once you get late, late, late in the season, the race for conference regular-season champion is going on. So, you’re playing for something this time of year. You get in the conference tournament, obviously it means something. And then when you get to the NCAA Tournament, then you’re talking about true one-and-done scenarios. So, being in these close games are definitely a benefit, especially to our younger guys.”

On what the team has learned about themselves in a stretch of close games …

“Well, we are tough and we are resilient. We’ve got a don’t-give-up, refuse-to-lose-type attitude and that is a positive thing. If we lose, it is just that we have ran out of time, not because we let go of the rope. That is something that is hard to develop, but it’s a positive when you see your team has that innately. So it’s a good thing for us.”

On why they are shooting better on the road …

“You got an answer for me? Because I don’t have one. We probably spend as much time in our opponents’ building as we do in our own so that’s not a factor. So, who knows what it is. But, we’ve got fantastic shooters and I think in the few home games that we have remaining, hopefully we will start to shoot a lot better.”

On debate on practicing more where you play games …

“I don’t think it matters. You look at Cal’s win-loss record over the course of 10 years, hard to argue about the success in that arena. So, I don’t think–the rims are 10 feet, the court is the same length, the basketball has the same amount of air in it. You’ve gotta – no matter the background – you’ve gotta to be able to get results at the end of the day. We are getting them on the road. We have to figure out how to get them at home.”

On Rupp Arena’s basket layout for a shooter and if, in his opinion, as a shooter, if that makes a difference …

“Exactly. I was a shooter. When I hear those arguments from our guys, I say, ‘That’s the arguments of non-shooters.’ [Media laughs.] Everywhere we play, somebody’s got a different ball. There is a Nike ball

here or it is an Under Armour ball here or it is an Adidas ball here. It’s a Wilson ball there. The nets might be different, tighter, looser. The rims are different color orange. You can either shoot the ball or you can’t. It doesn’t matter the background.”

On Ashton Hagans’ stats over the last few games …

“Well, the only thing I will say is that we wouldn’t trade Ashton for another point guard in the country because the results of the team are the ones that matter. You’re going to have ebbs and flows as an individual through the course of the season. That’s just human nature. So, we expect Ashton to get back on the upswing here pretty soon on the offensive end of the floor because he is gifted on that end too, just like he is defensively.”

On the defense recently and holding the last six opponents to 40% shooting …

“Yeah, I think our defense is evolving and coming along. I think our veteran players have carried us on that end of the floor as our younger guys have caught up with the intensity, the speed, the scheming at this level that you have to have. And then have five guys working this well on the floor, I think we are happy where our defense has progressed, but like every aspect of our team, we’ve still got a ways to go to be the best that we can be.”

On the improvement of the defense when having the same seven or eight in the rotation …

“It’s been a ton. You see the symmetry and the chemistry coming along on the defensive end of the floor. These guys are connected and we’re communicating better. That’s a big part of defense. It is always a struggle to get the young guys to understand what communication is. Communication is two-ways. It’s not just one guy saying, “Do this.’ It’s two guys commuting something that they’re seeing. We’re working on anticipating. We’re working on seeing ahead because if you see ahead, then you are able to communicate what you see. So, it’s a lot of these different things that the younger kids don’t know and struggle with coming in the door. This group of younger guys has learned and taken it on. And so now you put those two together, the veteran group with the younger group picking it up, we’re becoming a pretty special defensive team.”

On EJ Montgomery’s improvement and final-minute play on Saturday where he dove on the floor and got the ball to Ashton Hagans …

“It happened twice in the game. I think we all teased him that he had to trip. It couldn’t have been that he ended up on his back. He dove for a couple of loose balls, but he had to have gotten tripped. It couldn’t have been him just getting after it [joking]. But no, it’s EJ evolving as a player. I keep saying it every time I come out here: We talk about a guy – saying EJ – we have had a lot of atypical freshmen here, and EJ is no different than just other normal freshmen around the country that it has taken him a little bit longer in the process to get it. But, is there anything wrong with that? Is there anything wrong with PJ Washington or Willie Cauley-Stein? You can do both here. You can be one-and-done and out the door or you can come here and develop and take your time. You can do both. It’s on your timetable, not on ours. And EJ, it’s neat to see him starting to see some of the fruits of his hard work and the success and the praise because we don’t win that game the other night if it’s not for EJ.”

On if they anticipate LSU being a bit of a “wounded animal” after losing a few recently …

“I wouldn’t say (that). I mean, yeah, they’re two (wins out of) five in their last five, but I think if you look at the conference and the parity in the conference, any given night there is not a lot of separation. Anybody can beat anybody on any end of the floor, and it’s not like, all right they’re two (wins out of) five and three of the losses they’ve lost by 35 each. That’s not what happened. They have been in a lot of close games all year long in the conference. They have won their fair share obviously and naturally it’s going to go the other way against you a couple times. But they are a fantastic team and we know what a challenge it is going on the road, especially to a place like Baton Rouge, like the arena down at LSU.”

On LSU’s offensive efficiency and what makes them good on offense …

“They’ve got five guys that are starting that are not just averaging just 10 points. They’re averaging significant double figures. They’re a fantastic rebounding team on the offensive end of the floor. They’ve traditionally been since Will (Wade) has been there. They will shoot it and then they go get it. They shoot the 3. They drive the ball. They’ve got a couple guys that can post up. (Trendon) Watford is a matchup problem at the three. So, it’s the reason why they’re a fantastic offensive team because they’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts that can do a lot of different things.”

On how much the mental aspect of basketball comes into play for a player or team …

“It’s huge. It’s 90-10, mental to physical. Obviously you’ve gotta be in great condition and you’ve gotta be strong and all of those things. That’s a given. But it’s the mental strength, especially this time of the year. The season is starting to get a little long in the tooth. The dog days of conference play is winding down. Everybody could be looking ahead to the postseason. But it’s those teams that stay in the moment the best and the coaches that can keep their teams in the moment. And again, I’ve been around for Cal as long as anybody and there is no coach that does it as good as him of keeping his team present right now and not worrying about what happened before, who cares what’s coming up next weekend. That does not matter. The only thing that matters is today’s practice and us getting better and focusing on us and getting ready to play a terrific team in LSU.”

On what can throw off a player’s mental game …

“Fatigue. Fatigue. Whether it’s the course of a long season or in the course of a hard practice or the course of a game, fatigue, as they say, makes cowards of everybody. And it’s really the fatigue that you get lazy mentally. So that’s probably the biggest challenge this time of the year and if you can keep your team energized and together and connected. You’re tired of seeing the players, the players are tired of seeing you, and they’re tired of seeing each other. They are tired of flying on the planes together. If you can keep your teams excited about each other, and Cal has done that as good as anybody since I’ve been with him, which is a long time.”

On if Calipari has started cutting back on practice …

“Oh yeah. Once you see the guys start to get it, there’s no need to keep them out there for hours on end. This is a group that’s starting to get it. They are holding each other accountable. Like Cal says, it’s becoming a player-driven team that if someone is not carrying his weight, the first voice you hear is not the coach. It’sthe players that are saying to their teammate, ‘Look you’ve gotta carry your load.’ So, it’s

neat to see that come together. I keep beating a dead horse, but Cal’s as good as any in doing that year in and year out. We all get worried about a loss here, a loss there early, but you see it over and over again. Late December, early January, his teams connect, cohesive, come together and then take off, and then what happens down the stretch, we’ll see.”

On the team’s mentality after becoming the leader in the conference and …

“Again, it goes back to not looking in the past because you can’t change it. There’s no sense in looking forward because you can’t do anything about it. The biggest thing we’ve gotta do is keep this team present, in the moment. That’s today’s–focus on today’s practice and then focus on preparation for LSU tomorrow. That’s the only thing that you can control.”

FORWARD KEION BROOKS 

On another road test and why they have been successful …

“It’s fun just going out on the road and knowing it’s going to be a crowd that’s against you. We’re just going in knowing that we have to rely on each other. We’re not going to have a crowd like we have at Rupp to pick us up if we’re not playing really well. We just know we have to go in and listen to the coaching staff and just rely on each other to get it done.”

On whether they have the mentality of wanting to knock LSU out of the SEC race …

“You could think of it both ways. You could think of it that way, of we can go out there and knock them out, or they could come out and play incredible. They’re a good team and I don’t think they’re going to play bad for forever. There’s going to be a time where they eventually turn it back around, so we gotta go in and just continue to focus on us, execute our game plan and just try to execute what the coaches draw up for us and do everything we can to get the W.”

On the team jelling …

“You can just tell by how we fly around on the floor it’s starting to come more instinctual. Not thinking as much, especially on defense. We’re paying (attention) to the scouting report, personnel, what players like to do and trying to take away their strength, then force them to do things they’re not as good at. You can just kind of tell we’re clicking on all cylinders right now. Then on offense, we’re playing without thinking as well. The ball’s finding the open man, creating open shots for each other and then once we create those open shots, we have the ability to knock them down.”

On the most important habit to closing out games …

“Just be focused and also being ready to fight. Down the stretch, the game could go either way a lot of times, but if you’re staying locked in mentally in there with your teammates, listening to the coaches and then try to execute the game plan that they put out there for you, you should be able to get it done.”

On whether it would be nice to have a blowout …

“It would be nice to take off on somebody. It just hasn’t worked that way for us yet. Last game we played tremendous defense throughout the majority of the game, couldn’t make a shot. Sometimes

that’s just how it goes, but we’re going to figure it out. Hopefully we can start pulling away from teams, but if not there’s nothing wrong with that either. We’re battle tested. We’re going to get it done.”

On close games preparing them for the postseason …

“That shows that we’re battle tested. We’re not afraid to play in a close game. We know how to execute down the stretch. We’re able to get stops. I just feel like playing in a lot of close games is preparing us for March. Going into March, you’re not going to blow a lot of teams out. You might not blow any team out because teams are good. They’re well coached and they know how to run their stuff. I feel like going into March we should be good as far as being battle tested and being willing to win close games.”

FORWARD NATE SESTINA 

 On what makes LSU such a tough challenge …

“I’ve never played there, but I understand it’s a tough place to play. They’re playing well. Another hard game for us. End of the season, playing teams like this is good for us, especially going into the conference tournament, get a little bit of momentum going to it. But it is a challenge. You have a bunch of guys that can play, a bunch of guys that can rebound the ball well. They’re bigger, a little bigger with their guards. So, it’s just a big time matchup for us and for our guards to be able to step up and play.

On if so many close games have worn on the team …

“I think it’s a practice makes perfect kind of thing. We’re built for it. We’re in good enough shape to finish games out. Guys are in good enough shape to make free throws. Immanuel Quickley is who he is from the free throw line, Nick (Richards) is who he is. I don’t know if it really wears on anybody. It’s basketball, you live for games like that where it might come down to the wire, you might have a 20-point win, you might lose, whatever it is. We’re built for that, practice really, really hard so whatever the outcome is, it is. But that’s something that you can’t change. But I think that we do a good job of preparing ourselves to play in whatever kind of game we need to.”

On if playing in close games has benefitted the team … “

Yeah, I think, just like I said, we have guys on our team who are built for it. Where, if you’re down, they want to win so badly, they’re going to do whatever they need to, whether it’s get a stop, get a rebound or block somebody out, get a foul drawn, something like that. But I think that, with the guys that we have, especially our starting five, they’re competitors. They’re going to do whatever they need to, to kind of either get a lead or keep one.”

On why the team has shot the ball better on the road …

“I don’t know. I really don’t have an answer for it. I actually have no idea. Some games you’re on, some games you’re off.” On Rupp Arena’s shooting background … “It’s a darker background, if anything, I don’t know if that has any plan into how guys are shooting. With other games, students are right behind the hoop, usually talking crap. So, I really don’t know.

On Rupp Arena’s shooting background …

“It’s a darker background, if anything, I don’t know if that has any plan into how guys are shooting. With other games, students are right behind the hoop, usually talking crap. So, I really don’t know.”

On what he has been working on …

“Just getting back into what I was doing in the mornings, meditating, getting my mind right, trusting the training that I do. You work hard every day, you work out all time and to not do that in games, and to watch yourself on film is very, very frustrating. And to have someone with Coach (Kenny) Payne’s reputation and what he’s known for, talk to you about it and you work out with him all the time, and then you don’t do it in games, he’s like ‘what are we working out for?’ So, just trusting my training and trusting that what I’m doing is going to pay off and knowing and believing that my teammates trust me, coaches trust in me, that’s the only people that matter. If your teammates and your coaches believe in you and you can carry that with you, then you have a lot of confidence moving forward.”

Facebook Comments