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Kentucky's No. 1 ranking will have others 'trying to take our heads off'

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 11/12/2019 By Jerry Tipton, Lexington Herald-Leader
Immanuel Quickley wears a hat and jersey as he announces his commitment to play basketball at the University of Kentucky during a news conference at John Carroll School in Bel Air, Md., on September 22, 2017. © Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun/TNS Immanuel Quickley wears a hat and jersey as he announces his commitment to play basketball at the University of Kentucky during a news conference at John Carroll School in Bel Air, Md., on September 22, 2017.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Sophomore Immanuel Quickley drew a big laugh when asked his reaction to Kentucky being voted No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll released on Monday.

“Well, we haven’t been No. 1 that long,” he said. “I think it’s been, like, 20 minutes.”

When the reporters’ laughter subsided, Quickley acknowledged that a No. 1 ranking can inspire opponents. For instance, it inspired Kentucky against then No. 1 Michigan State in the season’s opening game.

“Definitely,” Quickley said. “Just the atmosphere of that game. We knew it was a big game. … We knew what was on the table.”

Teammate Kahlil Whitney said he expected Kentucky to be voted No. 1. He, too, saw that meaning inspired opponents.

“I think people are trying to take our heads off,” he said. “We have to watch our P’s and Q’s.”

At this early stage of the season, Quickley declined to take a bow for Kentucky being No. 1.

When asked if the Kentucky players felt like they were the best team, he repeated the question. “Do we feel like the best team in the country?” he said. “I don’t know. I really haven’t seen no one else play, to be honest. I’m just worried about me and my teammates.”

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When asked about EJ Montgomery playing against Evansville, UK Coach John Calipari sound more cautious than optimistic.

“I doubt it,” he said. “It’s day to day.”

Montgomery sustained an injury in the first half of the opener against Michigan State. He did not play against Eastern Kentucky last Friday.

Montgomery has not practiced since the Michigan State game, Calipari said.

The UK coach acknowledged that Montgomery being sidelined created opportunity for others. But with UK’s relative lack of depth on the front line, that’s of limited value.

“We’re not as good a team without him,” Calipari said. “because he’s one of our better players. But you want him healthy.”

Caution will be a priority, Calipari said. “Their body is their castle,” he said. “You try to tell them, if it tells you to stop, you stop. You have to listen to your body.”

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Evansville Coach (and former UK player) Walter McCarty traced the origins of Tuesday’s game to an encounter with Calipari at a recruiting event.

“I forget where we were,” McCarty said. “And he just came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’ll do anything for you. Do whatever you need me to do.’”

McCarty said he followed up with phone calls to UK’s deputy director of athletics, DeWayne Peevy.

“I love John Calipari,” McCarty said. “I really do. He’s one of the most real coaches you’ll ever meet, (a coach) that really cares about his players. He really cares.”

McCarty said he keeps in regular contact with Calipari via texts and other forms of social media.

“He’s just been a wonderful ambassador for the University of Kentucky and all the University of Kentucky players,” McCarty said. “I’m thankful he gave us this opportunity because he didn’t have to do that.”

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As a player and assistant coach McCarty has had the opportunity to learn from such coaching luminaries as Rick Pitino, Jim O’Brien and Brad Stevens. He said he has picked up “bits and pieces” from each coach in forming his approach to team-building.

“I think because I’ve been with Brad more recently, a lot of our offensive philosophies are (from) Brad Stevens,” said McCarty, who was a Celtics’ assistant from 2013 to 2018. “A lot of our defensive philosophies, our half-court traps or whatever, are Rick Pitino. Our toughness drills and stuff like that are a lot of Rick Pitino.” As for O’Brien, who was a UK assistant from 1994 to 1997, McCarty said he has tried to mirror his temperament.

“The way he went about things,” McCarty said. “Jim was just so smooth and calm.”

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Kentucky has seen Evansville’s Sam Cunliffe before. He played for Arizona State against UK in the 2016-17 season. His 14 points weren’t nearly enough as UK won 115-69 in the Bahamas.

UK had 33 assists in that game. De’Aaron Fox posted a triple-double (14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists).

A top-50 recruit from Seattle, Cunliffe transferred from Arizona State to Kansas. Now, he plays for Evansville.

When asked about Cunliffe, McCarty said, “We’re pretty balanced. There are going to be nights he leads us in scoring. There are going to be other nights it’s K.J. (Riley), DeAndre (Williams) or Artur (Labinowicz). Each is going to have really fun nights where they’re able to put up some numbers.”

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Paul Sunderland and former Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy will call the game for the SEC Network.

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©2019 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) at www.kentucky.com

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