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John Robic, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and James Young on UK's win over Mississippi State

John Calipari didn’t do a news conference following Kenucky’s 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday—he left after the game to go to the hospital to see his son, Brad, who had surgery yesterday to repair a torn ACL. So assistant coach John Robic did the interview in his place. I wish we had the opportunity to talk with him more. He’s fantastic in breaking down basketball in a way that satiates those who want to talk shop while still keeping it in language easily understandable.

As always, questions are in italics and paraphrased for clarity.



Did you guys have to reemphasize going inside in the second half and using your size? 

I think we settled in the first half. You look at the shots that we took, 4-for-20 from 3. We knew we had a size advantage. It’s something that we really worked on during this break, during this 13-day break. We got the ball where we wanted to in the second half, but we were getting pushed off the block when we didn’t have to be pushed off the block. The person that did the best job was Dakari (Johnson). He got the ball tight. He got it with two hands and was forceful once he caught the ball. It’s something that we are going to have to continue to do. That was a big game for him and his confidence, and it’s a big game for our team having a 7foot, 265pound player in the middle.


Cal has talked so much about Alex’s (Poythress) practice and we’ve seen little flashes of it, was tonight the best you’ve seen him play in a game so far this season?

This season? That’s how Alex’s been practicing. He’s played very, very well. His confidence level should be at an alltime high and I really think that he’s seeing that. He’s bringing an energy. He’s doing the things that he can do. Now, keep doing those things, but he has to expand a couple other things. Now he has time to work on those things. With his physical tools, he’s playing within his game, and he’s able to do a lot of good things.


The first half, Cal had talked about  worried about maybe being a little rusty. Do you think he was rusty, lethargic?

I think not lethargic. I think we were rusty. Having 13 days, even the players were like, ‘We finally get to play a game.’ It’s just the way the schedule went, but I do think that we were a little bit rusty. Not in  we’re in game shape, but we weren’t ready for the game when it started. And it took us some time. Really happy for Dominique Hawkins, comes in and gives us great energy, really got us going, again, mentioned Dakari and Alex, and James Young was terrific.


You guys had 12 assists in the second half, you were pushing the ball a lot with your pass and moving the ball well; was that the kind of stuff you focused on the last 10 or 12 days? 

That’s exactly what we worked on. Coach came in with a game plan after the Louisville game from the 29th through today of a checklist of things that we need to get better at to improve on, to do some things we had not even worked on, and I think we accomplished all those goals. But in transition, much better in the second half. Some maybe forced turnovers and trying to hit ahead, but we have to play faster. I think Andrew (Harrison) has been great in practice doing that. Sometimes he just throws it not looking where he’s throwing the ball and see if someone is open, but he initiates it. Our other guys are pitching it ahead when they need to, and that’s going to help us in the long run.


(Question regarding Mississippi State’s transition points in the first half.)

Well, we gave up, I believe 12 transition points in the first half. They finished with 16 and maybe one of them was late in the game there. Poor transition defense, sometimes guys run to their man instead of picking up the ball and then switch off at another point in time. That is something that we have to work on but it is inexcusable really. In any other game that could be a key.


(Question regarding if Dakari Johnson is ahead of Willie Cauley-Stein as far as low post moves.)

I think they are two totally different players, in that obviously Willie is quicker and more bouncy, where Dakari doesn’t have the lift that Willie has. I was happy with Willie’s post play today. The left hand jump hook that he set him up for (was great). He has been working hard on it. We feel comfortable throwing either the ball. That was the first signs of Dakari actually finishing plays. It was good to see. He ran the court better. I think he got two baskets in transition if I am not mistaken, which was good to see. You just can’t throw lobs to Dakari as high as you can to Willie.


(Question regarding Julius Randle getting double teamed defensively and if there is an adjustment the coaching staff will work with him on moving forward.) 

First off, he has to catch the ball tighter, no question. If he sees space, he has to take it. If they are going to send two or three players at him, he has to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the team, our players are finally understanding to be in certain spots on the postups. The only thing that disappointed us a little bit, especially in the first half, we just weren’t down and ready to receive the ball to be able to attack. And in the second half we were much better at doing that and taking gaps. Because, you know, Coach said during this layoff that when you don’t have the ball, that’s when you need to look to score. And it’s really true. I’ve never heard it before he said it, but it really is true. There are a few things in 18 years I haven’t heard with him, but that was one of them.


Is it a sign of James’ maturity when in the first half he takes 14 shots when you really need them and the second half you don’t need his offense as much and he pulls back and takes only four shots; is that something as a coach you like to see? 

Well, we like him being aggressive. I can’t think of any of the 18 shots that were bad or forced shots. James is a scorer. I mean, if he has it going, he has it going, and he has that green light to shoot the ball. I mean, if he’s down and ready like I just mentioned, shoot the thing, because he’s one of the better shooters and he’s just a slasher scorer and we need those baskets. The thing that sticks out to me, though, is 10 rebounds and five assists. So he played a complete game. I’m happy for him that way because he’s practiced better, he’s defending better, he’s being more talkative. And that was one thing during this layoff that, our entire team, is they have gotten to know each other a lot better, they are communicating better and they are understanding what we are trying to do better than any other point in time in the season.


Can you just elaborate on what Dominique gave you in the first half? Looked like he was being a little more aggressive with his shot, too. 

None of this affects Dominique, I don’t know how many people were here, the 23,000, it doesn’t affect him. But he just  he does what we ask him to do. He doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t lie. We try to tell him to lie every now and then. The hustle, he’s where he’s supposed to be. Defensively he puts pressure on the ball. Like to see him have a little bit more confidence to shoot the basketball, because he shoots it well in practice. I was glad to see him knock down his free throws. He just brings an energy that you have to find time for him on the floor, and that’s why he’s out there.


Kind of just answered my question there, but does Dominique have a full green light? He seemed hesitant in shooting the ball. 

I think he’s probably not 100 percent confident, because he wants to do the right thing. And if he misses his shot, he probably thinks he did something bad. He’s just that type of kid. And I think what he’s  if you watch his game, he’s more comfortable trying to get to the paint and jump over somebody, even at his size, and he’s comfortable with that. He’ll get there. Shoot, he’s played in 14 games, but he’s great, because he just gives us everything he has.


Is that it? You guys get an early night tonight.



On playing well in a game after playing so well recently in practice:

It felt good. I was just trying to bring some energy and just play. We were down at first. We had to pick up the energy and start playing.


What’s the difference between practicing that way and then actually putting it on the floor in a game?

There isn’t much of a difference, really. If you practice hard, it’ll translate to the game.


On the beginning of the game:

They hit some shots early. We were missing a lot of shots. Still, we should have been more focused on the defensive end. We gave up, what, 40 points in the first half? That’s way too much. Second half, we just came together and said, ‘Let’s start guarding, let’s start defending. Let’s try to hold them.’


On John Calipari at halftime:

He was just saying, you know, we’ve just got to pick it up on the defensive end. That’s really what it is: effort and everything out there.


On if they felt loose in the second half:

I mean, the offense will take care of itself. We’re just trying to guard. We were just trying to pick it up on the defensive end. Get blocks, get steals, give them more tough shots.


On Dakari Johnson:

Dakari played huge. He was great on the defensive end, and he was great on offense. That’s what he’s been doing in practice. He’s just a big body. Just bury him under the rim and score, really.


On improving connecting on lobs since the beginning of the season:

Yeah, I feel like that’s how it’s been every year here. We’ve just got to get accustomed to playing with each other.


On his reverse dunk, if he was showing off:

Nah, it’s just the way I caught the ball, really.


How much more fun is it to play the way he did:

It’s way more fun. You’re just playing basketball out there, making highlight plays. Everything you do, everything you dream of doing when you’re growing up. It’s fun out there.


On if he’s more relaxed now:

Yeah, I feel like I’m more relaxed.


How does that help your game?

It just helps keep calm and more poised out there. You know what to do, know what not to do.


Do you ever worry when James Young is pulling the trigger a lot and shots aren’t falling?

No, because we’ve seen James hit 30 shots in a row in practice. I’ll just let him keep on shooting. He has one of those shots that he’ll just hit them all or not.


On getting a win before two road games:

It’s real big. League play, we want to start it off with a win. Now we can focus on these next two road games, try to get some Ws.


On yelling to teammates on the floor while he’s on the bench, and if he’s helping direct them as a veteran player:

Yeah. Especially when players are not, like—sometimes you get confused out there. It helps to hear a person there telling them to get down to the corner or make sure you set a screen, stuff like that.


Are you more comfortable in that vocal role now?

Yeah, I’m comfortable being more vocal, being more of a leader.



On how it felt tonight:

It felt good, you know, just getting in the game and just having an impact on the game. It felt good.


On the adjustment to not playing much and only against certain match ups:

You know, it’s been tough. I’m so used to playing all the time, but you know it’s ben humbling. Just listen to him during practice, just getting better each and every day, that’s the main thing so you’ll be ready for a game like this.


On why he was so productive in this game:

You know, just cause they had another big guy I felt like I could play good defense on him, you know, and just take advantage of the paint.


On what the coaches have told him to work on:

You know, just defensively, you know, a lot of teams are putting me in pick-and-rolls, so just that factor and he said I’ve been doing a better job on that. So that’s the main thing I’ve focused on.


On if this was the first time he had scored six points in a row then been taken out of the game:

Yeah. You know, I was pretty tired, you know. It was a big momentum swing, so I got asked to take out of the game. I was kind of out of breath.


On if he was making an effort to run the court tonight:

Yeah. You know, whoever the big man is who…The five is usually supposed to take it out, but during the two weeks of practice he’s been telling me to run it and get early post ups. That’s how I’ve been trying to do.


On the reason for the slow start:

You know, it was just a slow start for us. I don’t know what it was, but at halftime he talked to us and we really just picked it up defensively.


On if he became closer with anyone on the team during the break:

You know, just everybody really. Throughout these two weeks, we’ve been doing everything together. Really just eating breakfast together, dinner together, so everybody’s been coming together.


On how much playing time he thinks is available for him with Willie Cauley-Stein playing so well:

Yeah, you know, that’s up to Coach Cal. You know, he’s going to do…He’s going to put the team in the best position to win the game, so whatever he thinks is fine, you know.


On if he’s gotten better since not playing vs. Boise State or if the matchup was just better tonight:

I think it’s better match ups and also, you know, in practice Coach Cal is just telling me, you know, a lot of teams are going to be putting me in pick-and-rolls, so during practice time I’ve just been working on, you know, just walling up, staying in front of the guard and getting back.


On the lob he caught in the first half:

Which one? The one Julius took from me? (laughs)


The first half one:

Yeah. That was just…I think James Young was, someone, I think Alex through it to me and I just went and just caught it.


On the lob Randle “took from him”:

Ah yeah. It was weird. I don’t know what that was about.


On if he thought he had that lob:

Yeah. I thought I had it, but I saw he was next to me so I just let him have it. The ball luckily went in.


On his personal six-point run in the second half and if that was a concerted effort to get him the ball:

Yeah. Before the second half started Coach Cal told me, you know, he was going to put me in and just to post up hard and try to make moves because they were playing I think a 1-3-1 zone or a 2-3 zone so there was a lot openings for me. That was Coach Cal, that was his coaching.


On John Robic saying this game was big for Johnson’s confidence:

Yeah. I think the Louisville game, I got accustomed to just playing in games like this, intense games. I just tried to take advantage and make my mark on the game every time I went in.


On if he’s been frustrated at all by playing time:

Yeah. I was a little bit frustrated, you know, but over the past two weeks, you know, in practice, you know, we’ve just been practicing hard and getting better, so I’ve just been focused on practicing hard and whenever I get in just make the best opportunity of it.


On practice helping his confidence:

Yeah, it does help my confidence. Just going up each and every day against my teammates, you know, and just seeing that we’re growing as a team.


On what it’s like to hear people cheering for him in Rupp Arena after spending some time in Lexington as a child:

You know, it feels good. You know, when I lived here, you know, I was one of those people, the spectators just yelling at the players, you know, and cheering them on, and now, you know, I’m just a part of it. It feels special.


On if he listens for the cheers:

(Laughs) A little bit. You know, when you’re doing good, you get taken out of the game and you get a good cheer, you know, it always feels good.


On Calipari’s reaction to the first half after all the work in practice:

Oh man, it was a bad reaction. We started out sluggish, you know, slow, but during halftime, you know, he just reminded us what we’ve been working on throughout these whole two weeks. You know, in the second half we just made those adjustments.


On why they started that way:

I’m not really sure, you know. I really don’t know.



On his 26 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists:

It was a good game, I guess. I practiced really hard, got a lot of shots up before the game, and I guess it just carried over.


On if he gets more excited with his family watching:

Oh yeah. They always just give me a little more energy, just always seeing them at every game. I just love when they come. Just gives me an extra boost.


On if Miss State’s defense on Randle made him see a need to loosen things up from outside:

Yeah. They were just pressuring Julius a lot, just double-teaming him like they always have, like every team. I just tried to score on the outside a little bit so we could try to ease it up in the post a little bit, I guess.


On Alex Poythress:

Alex is doing great. He’s been working hard, really hard, in practice, and it’s carrying over into the game. I guess you can throw it anywhere towards the rim — he’ll catch the lob. And you saw what happened today.


On all the dunks:

We run a lot in transition now. That’s what we’ve been doing in practice. It’s something we’ve been working on, and it’s starting to carry over.


On if that’s something they couldn’t do before:

We’ve done it before. It’s just, we’re getting more used to each other and we can put the ball in, so that’s what we’re doing.


On passing the ball ahead rather than always dribbling up the court:

Yeah, Coach just put that in, like, a couple days ago, I guess. It’s just something we’re working on and getting better at, and we’re starting to perfect it a little bit.


On how much fun it is to have all those dunks:

It’s just real fun. It brings a lot of energy, it gets the crowd involved. I think that’s what helps us get the W, when everybody’s involved and everybody’s playing together.


On if they were rusty to start:

Yeah. For some reason, we always come off a little slow, and it’s something we got to work on, I guess. Today we started off real slow, I guess. Coach had to call time out and just told us to pick it up, and that’s what we did.


On Calipari’s postgame message:

Way to come back, and way to keep fighting and not give up. That’s what we just tired doing, not giving up.


On if the second half was how practice has been the last week or two:

Yeah. I think we had a little bit more communication with each other, and that’s what Coach said during halftime, just communicate with each other and everything will be fine. So we tried communicating on offense and defense, and it got us the win.


On coaches giving him the green light:

Yeah. If I’m open, they just told me to shoot it. They got a lot of confidence in me, they got a lot of confidence in my shot, so if I got the open shot I’m gonna take it.


On if he’s in a rhythm as a shooter:

Not really. Some days, everybody has their on and off days. In the first half, I thought I was just gonna have an off game, I guess. Then I just kept the confidence going, just kept my mentality to keep scoring. That’s what happened.


On if the 12 assists in the second half are indicative of how they’d been practicing:

Definitely. Sometimes in practice, we pass it five or six times before we even shoot, and it’s just carrying over into games, like I’ve said. Practices has been real hard on us, and I guess we’re getting better.


On if that’s looked better in practices over the break:

Yeah. During the break, we’ve just been practicing communicating more, passing the ball more. It’s really bringing us together as a team.

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