Kentucky’s EJ Montgomery blocks a shot during the Wildcats’ win over UNCG last weekend at Rupp Arena. Montgomery has gained more playing time during the past couple of months. (Kentucky Today/Bill Thiry)

Calipari: More practice time beneficial for young Wildcats

LEXINGTON — John Calipari is finally spending some quality time with his team this week.

The ninth-ranked Wildcats (7-1) will play one game a week during the next five weeks, starting with Saturday’s noon encounter against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden and Calipari is looking forward to more practice time after playing seven games last month, including a stretch of three games in six days.

“We need to figure stuff out,” Calipari said. “We need to press a little bit, so now how are we going to do it? Now I have time. We just had so many games, we just had to worry about us. We’re worried about staying in front of everybody. We’re worried about closing out with high hands. We’re worried about helping the helper and rotating and anticipating. Think about that. That’s all we’re doing right now. Offensively we haven’t done much because we’ve worked so much on the defensive end.”

As with any given season, the Kentucky coach hasn’t ruled out the possibility of installing a run-and-gun scheme, featuring more pressure defense and using more zone. Calipari said the Wildcats simply have more time to explore their options in moving forward.

“If we’re going to press, what does it look like? We don’t know yet,” he said. “If we’re going to play some zone, what does that look like? Who are the players that can play against that zone? Some offensive things, how do we maybe space the court wider? We’re doing one of the things you guys keep talking about, we’re rebounding so well; well, have you kind of figured out that we’re keeping guys near the rim so we can? When you space that court, the one thing you’ll usually give up is that ability to offensive rebound, and that’s important to us.”

Like his coach, Reid Travis is looking forward to more time behind the scenes and said it will give Kentucky a chance to “grow a lot” going into the last stretch of non-conference games.

“This is something where you look at the schedule and see we’re only playing on Saturdays for the next five weeks. We have a full week to prepare but also just a full week to get better at the things that we need to as a team, individually.”

Although the Wildcats aren’t a finished product just yet, Travis said the Wildcats are starting to come together as a team.

“I really feel like we’re starting to piece together some more things like moving out feet, staying in front of guys, our rotations are a lot better,” he said. “The more games we can play, get on film and learn from, just means the more games we can have like this one.”

Following Kentucky’s 78-61 win over UNCG last week, Calipari said he has settled on playing three big men in the post. That three-man post rotation currently includes Travis, PJ Washington, and freshman EJ Montgomery. Sophomore Nick Richards played just one minute against the Spartans and needs to jump major hurdles to become a factor again.

“I’m playing three bigs right now, and if the three bigs are all playing well, I’m just going to leave them there,” he said. “We’ll practice this week (and) if Nick steps up and he steps in front of one of those guys, one of those other guys won’t play. If there’s foul trouble, be ready. He went in and blocked a shot (against UNCG) and I just decided, you know what, this game is too tight. I’m not going to mess with it now. And I thought EJ did some good things. I thought EJ wore down.”

Kentucky associate coach Kenny Payne said Montgomery is still improving and still has time to reach his peak.

“We need to see EJ Montgomery at the end of February, March and go on a stretch and he puts us on his back some,” Payne said. “That’s just the reality of it. That’s our goal. That was our goal when we recruited him. We’re not judging you by November and December. How good can you be after six, five months to this? That’s what we’re looking for.”

Payne said Montgomery is a younger version of former North Carolina standout Sam Perkins.

“(He) can shoot it, can rebound it, can pass it, fluid, real smooth with it — that’s how I see it,” he said. “But, we have to get him to that point of playing hard every possession, getting stronger, getting his legs stronger, getting his hips stronger. Once that happens, the sky is the limit.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Seton Hall, noon, Saturday. TV/Radio: FOX, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.