Five Notes from Interviews with Kenny Payne, Tony Barbee

This afternoon, reporters in the Bahamas were treated to 30 minutes with Kentucky’s assistant coaches to discuss whatever topics our hearts desired. I spent my time with Kenny Payne and Tony Barbee, and came away with several interesting notes about this team.

Nick Richards was great, but can he follow it up tonight?

Nick Richards was the story of Kentucky’s first game in the Bahamas, scoring 19 points off 6-7 from the floor at 7-8 from the free throw line. Big man guru Kenny Payne was thrilled with Richards’ progress, but said the true test will come tonight.

“Very proud [of Nick]. Really want to know what he does tonight to build on that because he was really dominant. I need to see him take it another step because there’s more in him.”

Payne confirmed that all Richards needed to do was get out of his own way mentally.

“That’s all it is. Nick has to be willing to make mistakes confidently and be assertive. Once he does, we can live with the rest of the mistakes.”

Reid Travis’ debut was a “wash”

Reid Travis lived up to his reputation as a rebounding machine in his Kentucky debut, leading the team with 14 boards, but the rest of his game was a little shaky. Payne chalked Travis’ offensive struggles up to nerves.

“Of course. This is new and different for Reid. It’s an adjustment. We’re asking him to play different than he’s ever played in his life. He’s highly intelligent, he’s 100 percent committed. He knows what we expect of him and he’s on board. Last night is a wash for me for Reid Travis. We know he’s going to rebound. We know he’s going to fight. We know he’s going to give us 100 percent effort. He’s going to get more comfortable and the more comfortable he becomes the more dominant he’ll be.”

So far, Tyler Herro is this year’s Shai

Last year, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the first player in the gym and the last to leave, which helped him transform into a lottery pick. In that sense, Tony Barbee said that so far, Tyler Herro is the Shai of this group.

“Tyler is a confident kid that believes in himself as a player and he’s one of, if not the hardest worker on the team. He spends a lot of time in the gym. We’ve seen it over and over and over again. When you’ve got a guy, aka Shai, who spends all that time in the gym, he’s waking up, he’s in the gym. He goes to class, then he’s in the gym. Go eat lunch, back in the gym. Go to tutors, back in the gym. He does it all day and night, so you can expect nothing but the best from Tyler on the floor because of the time he puts in. He’s the guy that sets the tone for how, when you come to Kentucky, you better work that hard to get what you want out of this. Those expectations are there because of it.”

Payne said Herro’s work ethic extends to the entire freshmen class.

“I think the work ethic of this group is special. Those guys want to be great basketball players. They live in the gym. Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans. Those five freshmen came in here and said, ‘I want to be better.’ They live in the gym and they have a swag about them. But their swag is not arrogance because they’re willing to work.”

Ashton Hagans is a game changer

Even after one exhibition game, it’s clear that Ashton Hagans is a difference maker for this team. The freshman guard is not only lightning fast, he’s prides himself on defense and rebounding, which Tony Barbee said could take this group from good to great.

“He’s a type of athlete that can change the dynamics of the game without having the basketball in his hands. The more guys that are like that, the better your team is going to be. Ashton has those qualities about him.”

Payne likes PJ’s maturity

PJ Washington has slimmed down noticeably since last season, but Kenny Payne said the biggest change in his game has been his determination to get better.

“The biggest has probably been his maturity. PJ Washington is a really good basketball player and his success is going to be predicated on his aggressiveness, his willingness to take it from where he is today to 30 percent better. Another way of saying it is, every single day you step on the court, get five percent, three percent better, and when we’re in January or February, where will you be if you take that approach? Mentally, emotionally, physically, aggressiveness, shooting, all of it. Free throws, rebounding. Don’t let three or four minutes go by. Just be aggressive every single moment you’re on the court.”

Enjoy more from our conversation with Kenny below: