LEXINGTON, Ky. — Quade Green scored 17 points in sunglasses, Kevin Knox bounced back from a horrible game by scoring 21 points and Hamidou Diallo delivered a fourth straight strong performance with 20 points. Kentucky basketball hit 11 of 22 3-pointers, a season high, and the Wildcats won a shootout with Virginia Tech’s potent offense, 93-86 at Rupp Arena on Saturday.
There was a lot to like — albeit not as much on defense — as eighth-ranked Kentucky (9-1) picked up its best win of the season. The Hokies (9-2) entered the day 29th in Ken Pomeroy’s stat-based rankings. Next up: UCLA in New Orleans on Dec. 23 and rival Louisville at home on Dec. 29. Here’s everything Kentucky coach John Calipari said about Saturday’s game and what looks like an increasingly bright future for the young Wildcats:
Q. What did you learn about mental toughness and guys you can count on down the stretch from this game?
JOHN CALIPARI: I’m gonna watch the tape. I usually learn more from the tape than I do just watching the game because I’m in a dogfight and very rarely say anything to the officials or anything, but everything else I’m in a dogfight out there, so I’ll miss a lot of stuff. But let me start by saying that the job [Virginia Tech basketball coach] Buzz [Williams] is doing, how — what I love about him as a coach, they’re playing a way they have to play to win. It’s different than we’re playing. We were posting; They were driving and shooting 3s. And defensively he was switching it up, going some man, going some zone, and you know, I like the fact that we had to go against his team, well-coached. I expected them to press a little bit more, but I can see that he did the right thing for his team. They had a chance to win really the whole game.
But terrific players. You know, still made 10 3s on us, and we made 11 on them. How about that? We don’t shoot that many 3s. We shot 22? Wow.
Q. Is this the best game you’ve ever had by a player in sunglasses?
JOHN CALIPARI: He was really good. Let me just say this —
Q. What was going on there?
JOHN CALIPARI: There were a couple things. I thought Quade — I put him in quick because I didn’t like — I like the rotation with him starting and Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] coming off the bench. It’s just a better rotation for our team. He’s playing the way I want him to play, which is score baskets, kid. Score baskets, that’s what you do. But by doing that, he’s getting 5 assists and one turn. So instead of being like watch me with the ball and bouncing it 12 times, he’s either trying to score it, and if you stop him from scoring, he’ll give it to somebody because he’s a good enough passer.
I thought Shai was good [Saturday]. Wenyen [Gabriel], 9 rebounds [Saturday], was really good. I thought Hami [Diallo] was good. Look, individual players are getting better. Nick [Richards] struggled, Sacha [Killeya-Jones] struggled, but that’s OK. They’re not machines. They’re not going to be great every night out. But you saw that I put in a press. That’s what I worked on last week.
It was OK for three days’ work. Now we’re going to have another four days and try to add some stuff to it. That’s my old press from 10 years ago. When you’ve been doing this 40 years, you can go reach back in the basket 20 years ago and come up with something you used that still can work.
Q. They shot 58 percent —
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, it was pretty good defense.
Q. How do you factor that in, and how do you take account for this game?
JOHN CALIPARI: If we didn’t turn them over, they win the game. Then you look and say, well, how did you get them turned over? Probably the press more than anything else. If they don’t turn it over, they beat us. And again, I’m going to have to look at exactly what they were doing, but they’re like a typical team that comes into this building that has talent that plays loose. They had nothing to lose, and that’s how they played. They only made three threes in the second half. One was the last 3 throwing it up the court, and one was where Wenyen didn’t know the guy was standing right next to him, he made a 3, so from that they made one. But they made 3 3s in the second half compared to what they did to us in the first half.
You know, we had talked about tough 2s and not giving up 3s, and we gave up a bunch. But it’s what a young team does.
Q. What was the difference in the 3-point defense in the second half? Why were you more effective then?
JOHN CALIPARI: I told them if you don’t run through, I’m taking you out. So if I see a guy go at a 3-point shooter and not run through him, not to foul, just make him bounce the ball, you’re out, I’m taking you out. That’s mean, I know, and probably it’s a mean thing to say, take a guy out every time he gives a guy a 3. We’re trying to win.
Q. Are the sunglasses now mandatory for Quade going forward?
JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know if they’re mandatory, but just so you know, because I kind of felt bad for him, I was going to wear sunglasses [Saturday], too. I told the team I was going to. I thought, if he has to do it, I’ll do it with him, we’ll both have sunglasses. But I didn’t want to be — it would have been a national story, and there he is, he wears jeans on the plane, this bum, this guy. Who does he think he is, he thinks he’s at the beach, who is this guy? But that’s why I didn’t do it.
Q. Could you talk about Hami’s shooting?
JOHN CALIPARI: Shooting much better. He’s working at it. Kevin Knox, I told him after the game, I went at Kevin for three or four straight times and it was unbelievable, and then you look at me and say, well, you went away from him after that. Well, he had played 7 straight minutes and what I do is normally is just keep going. If that guy gets it going, he’ll get it 15 straight times. But I didn’t because this is not a normal team for me. This is all freshmen. So then I shifted, I wanted PJ [Washington] a little bit, and I’m forcing him to make baskets, make fouls. He’s got to be that guy for us. And then I like whom my away from the ball as a secondary scorer because he gets baskets that way as well as anybody.
But it was — I thought we rebounded a little bit better. Nick still — we didn’t two-hand rebound. Nick went after the ball one hand probably five times that cost him 5 rebounds. So he could have had — I don’t see him on here. He had 6, he could have had 11 or 12 rebounds, and he went after balls with one hand. He didn’t bring any of them in. Some of them were late that almost cost us.
Q. Why is a press you dusted off from 10 years ago best for this particular team?
JOHN CALIPARI: Because I’ve got to figure out something that disrupts the game and something that they don’t get into a rhythm. A zone normally is going to get a team to make eight, 10 passes. If you want to speed up a game, how do you do that and be disruptive? You either trap out of a zone or trap out of a man or press, and this is a simple — it’s not that hard a press, but it’s one that I think could be effective for this team. Part of it is when the front line of your press is [6-foot-9] and 6-6 and that guard is looking at that and you put interceptor in the middle and the other guy is 6-9 and you’ve got an interceptor deep who’s 7-foot, Nick, who can come up with balls; kind of makes you think like, what are we doing?
Now, what they did, and again, Buzz was pretty smart, he said, look, we’re putting shooters in the deep corners, throw it to anybody, just get rid of it and we’re going to find somebody in the corners, which is what they started doing in the first half at the end of the first half.
Q. What was it about the way Tech defended you that led to those 11 3-pointers and the 22 3-point attempts?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, they’re a 3-point shooting team and a fast team. Man, did they start the game fast. I mean, I’m sitting here saying, are they this fast the whole game? We’re more of a post-up team. So now when we throw it in there, you’ve got to make choices. If we can score on you, you’re going to trap. You’re going to do something, and the minute you trap, it should open up our shooters. Now, what was happening is we couldn’t get Nick to dive, so Nick’s man was going to double-team, and Nick wanted a jump shot instead of that run to the basket. When Wenyen ran to the basket, that’s when Hami got shots, that’s when PJ got shots. You just need that guy out of there.
But I think that’s what did it and where we got most of the 3s.
Q. When you’re pressing and you’re limiting their possessions, are you willing to live with a higher shooting percentage because they have fewer shots?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, if you know my career, I cannot stand giving up baskets. I want them all contested. And when you’re doing this, you have it a little different mentality, which is let’s get into their legs. Let’s be the aggressor. If we let Virginia Tech be the aggressor, we lose this game. We don’t have a chance. And what I’ve learned in my career, you’re playing a pressing team, you always press the pressing team. And that makes you the aggressor versus them.
And so the issue becomes can we play eight and nine guys playing that way, you know, and I thought PJ got tired in the second half. You know, and that’s — you start playing — we haven’t played in a week, so you start playing twice a week and we’re trying to play this way, it may be in spots, may not be much but it’ll be in spots.
Q. You talked [Friday] about guys not getting [indiscernible]?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, the thing I’ve said is people evaluating my players individually. It’s not the team. We’re all freshmen. Everybody knows it. We’re hoping by January we become one of those kind of teams. We’re not there yet. But when you look at whether it be Hami or Kevin or even Nick, who was not real good [Saturday], or Shai, and you start saying, well, they’re not this and he’s not that and that’s not John Wall or that’s not — well, there’s only one John Wall, and I want to tell you, there’s only one Anthony Davis, who has one eyebrow. There’s only one — these kids are good, really good players, and are going to have professional careers. They are. I don’t know who’s watching them to think they’re not, and they’re all 6-9 and 6-10 and 7-foot and head on the rim, now nose on the rim. I mean, yeah, they may not have this, but what they have is special and sets them apart.
The question becomes when we’re fatigued how do we play. Do we learn how to win in close games? That’s why this game was important for us. Do we really become servant leaders to each other to where we’re worried about the other guy more than myself? We still have guys that want the ball so bad they can’t play. I keep trying to explain. You set a great screen, you will get open. We’ve got guys that won’t set a screen because they’re looking at the ball, and it affects them.
Q. Do you think with this win, your team is going to finally get some respect?
JOHN CALIPARI: I think we’ve gotten respect. I mean, everybody knows we’re playing all freshmen. Wenyen didn’t play much last year and Sacha didn’t play much last year and everyone else is a freshman. This is the youngest team in the last 11 years, this is the youngest team to play college basketball, and I bet you it’s the youngest team in the last 30 years to try to play this young and really compete for something. You know, a team this young usually goes 7-30 and they fire the coach. No, we’re getting respect. We are.
Q. Justin Robinson had 19 and 9 [Saturday], most out of screen-and-roll situations. What makes him so difficult in that situation?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, you know, what I saw with him, he was good coming off, getting him the ball, physically being able to finish. We couldn’t get guys to come across the lane. And again, when you’re a young team and they’re over there and your man is over here, you’re more concerned with your man than coming over here and helping, and that was a lot of it. I mean, I started like saying, let’s just switch. I can’t get the weak side off. That’s what you do when you have freshmen. Just switch. Just play zone. They’re not listening.
But no, they’re good. I mean, this team, you know, not only is he good and he’s a great layup shooter, so if you get him near the rim, he’s making baskets. But they’ve got guys that if you leave them open, they’re making 3s. They’re going to make shots. And that’s why they’re going to be dangerous. Any team that’s willing to take 25, 30 3s and has a chance to make 15, you will win games. You will win games. And Buzz is letting them go. They’re playing fast. He’s doing a heck of a job with that team.
Q. I know you’re not looking for excuses or making -—
JOHN CALIPARI: I always look for excuses. Give me a couple.
Q. But this time of the year you talk a lot about distractions, final exams, family, friends, girlfriends, NBA scouts, media. How do you think this particular team is going to be able to respond to all those distractions later on down the line?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we’ve got — they’ve got two days off. They’ve got [Saturday] off and they have [Sunday] off. We’re coming back Monday to practice. Tuesday will be individual work. Then we go Wednesday, do some stuff before we leave. We leave — we practice here Thursday, leave to go to New Orleans. It’s been good for our team. This team needed this kind of schedule. We did not need to play top-5 teams early — we don’t even know who’s who. I don’t, they don’t, we’re trying to learn about each other. But this schedule has been good for us.
Look, I coach at Kentucky; there are no excuses here. You’re supposed to win every game by 20. If you win by 13, they want to know what the heck is wrong with the Cats. And all I worry about is how do I get individual players better. How does each guy, like I’m looking at Sacha and Nick, they’re more on my mind than these other guys because I’ve got to get them right for them. Wenyen was better [Saturday]. Second thing is how does this team have to play to win. I don’t know yet. We’ve got guys saying we should be playing all zone. We’ve got guys saying why aren’t they pressing. Why didn’t he just do what he always has done: Play man-to-man. That’s why I’m the coach and you’re sitting in the seats. So I will try to figure that out, and we’re experimenting, honestly, offensively. We’re experimenting. Like we don’t have this system that — we’re like trying stuff, I don’t like it, it’s out. If I like it, we do it. You know, I’ll say this: a bunch of good kids, and they’re trying to please me and the staff. What else can I ask for? And they’re smart. They’re like — I say it once, they’re pretty good. The only thing that happens is they get fatigued, and when they get fatigued, they revert back to their old self, and their old self — when they’re doing it the way they did it at times [Saturday], they look pretty good.