Q: What have you seen as far as the meshing of older players with new ones this preseason?
AK: The most frightening thing for us as coaches is that six of our 12 scholarship players have never played in a Division I game, so there is a great deal we have to learn. I am pleased with how our young guys have approached not only the first couple weeks of practice, but the entire preseason, starting for a majority of them this summer when they came for summer school. Their attitude has been great. Their effort has been consistent, which allows us as coaches to do our job. We have not had one day in which we have had to coach effort, and that allows us to lay the foundation for what I believe is going to be a pretty good basketball team. We are certainly more versatile than we have been. We have added some pieces that are going to give us an opportunity to play in a variety of ways, and it's just a matter of gaining that much needed experience, which none of us can project until they get in those types of games.
Q: Do you find it's easier to get backcourt players ready quicker than frontcourt players? Last year your backcourt was new, and this year it's your frontcourt that's new.
AK: I don't know. It's a different thing that they have to learn. More than anything with those guys is that we have five guys competing for 80 minutes on the frontline and only one has been in a Division I game, which is frightening. At the same time, they are talented kids, and they have a high basketball IQ as a group. Their effort has been great. Their attitude has been good, which allows us to grow pretty quickly. We feel like we are a little ahead of schedule comparing to the two prior years, and a lot of that is that we are in year three and the foundation to what we are trying to get accomplished has been laid. I think these kids have an opportunity to make an immediate impact, and that's what we need because there is certainly an opportunity.
Q: Talk about the SEC race.
AK: Since I have been here, with the exception of Florida who was coming off their second year of back-to-back championships during my first year, the league has been up in the air. Tennessee has become more stable in the east, but in the west, I think top to bottom it is anybody's game. A lot of us are depending on new players making impacts, and I think those that make the transitions more readily will have a chance to transcend, especially on our side. There are quality players across the board. Last year, it was a very young league, and I think lots of those kids are coming back ready to make the next step. Many of those kids on our team are ready to do so.
Q: Two players who were here last year, Malcolm White and Kevin Cantinol, we don't know much about. White played last season and we saw glimpses of what he can do, and Cantinol redshirted. Update us on them.
AK: Kevin was in the program last year. He is the biggest presence we have had since I have been here. He is legitimately 6-10 and around 235 or 240 pounds, depending on what he had for lunch. He is a kid that is relatively new to basketball. He has been in the states for a couple of years. I have joked before that he is fluent in seven languages, but unfortunately English is not one of them. He's getting better. He is a tremendous athlete who has made the most improvement of any kid since I have been here. He's got a lot of things that he needs to learn. The speed of the game is the biggest deterrent for him, but he's only going to get better with him growing with more experience. He's a big, physical presence. He's got a better skill level than people realize, and just his sheer size is going to be a contributing factor. Malcolm White is a kid that is going to be a key for us to be able to sustain any productivity along our frontline. He is the only kid that has been in a Division I game. Last year, he was the fourth rotation in a three-player rotation, and he was playing behind three seniors that were physically from an experience standpoint better than him. This year, Malcolm is going to be given an opportunity much like Eniel Polynice was, and I hope that he takes advantage of it like EP did. EP came in as a freshman and was playing behind three senior guards. When he had his opportunity to show who he was, he just wasn't performing at that level. Obviously you are more comfortable with seniors when you have that sense of urgency. Mac was in that situation last year. When EP got the opportunity last year with the departure of the seniors, he has a tremendous sophomore year based on opportunity and his readiness. So we hope that the same can be said for Mac this year, which will certainly stabilize our frontline since that is our biggest question mark. Through our first ten days, Mac has far exceeded my expectations. He has been our most consistent performer at this point. If he will continue that, he will have a tremendous year.
Q: Talk about what you've seen from Chris Warren as he enters year two.
AK: I have said this, and I'm not the only coach who has said this, but typically you see the greatest improvement between your first and second year. I really believe that. A lot of times, people don't think you are talking about players like Chris, who led us in scoring, broke all the freshmen records, was one of the leading freshman contributors in the country, and made 103 three-pointers that broke the Ole Miss record. They say, ‘They must be talking about guys who don't play much. They can't be talking about this guy.' Chris is also in that category. He has made tremendous improvements in a couple of areas. Number one, mentally. He's much more confident about what he can accomplish than year one. He's much more assure of himself. He knows what is around the next corner, unlike freshmen who don't know what's behind door number two. Chris does now. He understands the demands that are going to be placed on him by his staff and the commitments that come with being consistently good at this level. Physically, he's stronger than he has ever been. He doesn't get knocked off the ball. He is quicker, more explosive and more determined. What we have tried to do is get him more vocal. He is much more vocal in the locker room. He understands the ownership he must take for this team. Last year he was more worried about what he should do. Now, he's beyond that. Now, he's worried about what his team should do, and what he can do to accomplish that. We have seen that growth in him already. He has to continue to grow, and he will as he gets more comfortable in his role on the floor. He is a fiery competitor, and he has never lacked confidence. His efforts have always been consistent, and that has never changed.
Q: Talk about what affect the extended three-point line might have?
AK: We haven't seen any effects. Our most consistent three-point shooters, as it relates to percentage and volume, would be Chris, David (Huertas), Trevor (Gaskins), Terrico White and Will Bogan, and the line doesn't affect them at all. I think it will effect those ‘tweener guys—the small forwards, power forwards who shoot 25-35 a year. You may see that number go down a little bit, but it doesn't really effect us at all at this point. It really doesn't effect Zach (Graham) that much. We have four guys in our program now, including Terrence Henry and Murphy Holloway who are both three point shooters, that if the line was a foot closer, their volume numbers may go up a little more, and my acceptance of their volume may be up a little more. At this point, though, it hasn't really come into play.
Q: What do Terrence Henry and Murphy Holloway bring to your team?
AK: They bring a skill set that we haven't had since I have been here. They bring versatility with their ability to face the basket. They are two different players that are going to give us two different options at that spot. Terrence is 6-9 and about 192. Physical strength is going to be an issue with him. He's incredibly fast from baseline to baseline. He's got ball skills that we are comfortable with him initiating offense off the bounce. He also can shoot the ball at the three. They are both exceptional passers that will allow us to do things away from the basket with them, which is going to isolate whoever is opposite them in the low post and will take away some of the help side responsibility of our opponent. Murphy is much stronger at 225, but not quite as tall though equally long. I think their reach is both around seven feet. He doesn't shoot it quite as good, but good enough that you have to guard him where he can get it at the basket. Those two guys are going to allow us to play a different style and get a few more pitches in the arsenal.
Q: What will put your team over the top to get to the NCAA tourney this year?
AK: For me, it's crystal clear. We have been pretty good at home as we are 32-3, and I think that's good enough to get us to our ultimate goal of the NCAA. We have to breakthrough on the road. How do you do that? You have to be mentally and physically tough enough to get it done away from home. You have no external motivation when you are on the road. It has to come from within. Until we are able to breakthrough, and we weren't able to do it until the end, our guys didn't understand what it was going to take to consistently breakthrough. From my view, we are 2-0 on the road going into our first road contest, which comes pretty quickly for us. We won our last road contest at Georgia in SEC play and obviously the breakthrough at Virginia Tech, which I think will do wonders for the psyche of our team, especially the guards that are all back now and having gone into that environment and played that quality of team and know they are capable if they take the right approach.
Q: Your non-conference schedule is tough, especially early, isn't it?
AK: Everything comes quickly. They moved practice back on us. It seems that everything has moved up, and it's hard to believe that we have an exhibition here in a few days. It's going to be good to see us against someone other than ourselves, and I know our players are excited about it, but it's awfully quick. As a coach, you never feel like you are quite prepared, and with the newness of so many guys on the team, no experience and with no seniors, I certainly don't feel like we are where we need to be. We have to learn quickly. It's Arkansas State and then a South Alabama team that won 20-plus games last year. Then we go to Daytona Beach and play a Utah team that is going to be as good as they have been in a few years. Then we play a good Marshall team from Conference USA and a Central Florida team from Conference USA, and then before you know it I'm starring at Coach (Bob) Huggins and West Virginia. Then we take our act on the road for some very challenging games: at UNO, at New Mexico and then playing Louisville. We have to be ready quickly. I think this non-conference schedule will show us where we are and where we need to be so that we can make the adjustments prior to the rigors of SEC play.
Q: Talk about freshman guard Terrico White and how he might fit in this season.
AK: We have more depth in our backcourt than we have ever had since I have been here. We have seven guys that I think can really be comfortable in a game with the five guys returning plus Terrico and Will Bogan, who have both been tremendous. Terrico is about 6-5, 210 pounds. He is a monstrous athlete, and that's an affectionate term for those of you who don't understand monsters or athletes. Put together, it's a huge compliment. He is a tremendous athlete. He has to figure out as a freshman that he has to bring it everyday. He can't be the best player on the floor Tuesday and not bring it on Wednesday. The great thing about our practices right now is that they are really competitive. Our guys understand that we have great players, so they are really working hard to find their niche. Terrico is going to have a lot of opportunities. He can really score. His athleticism is going to impact the game on both ends of the floor. He's as athletic a kid as we have had here, and I think people are going to realize that pretty quickly.
AK talks hoops
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