Kentucky's Wiltjer showing 'animal' instincts

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 25, 2013 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

Kyle Wiltjer has served Kentucky's basketball team this season as a shooter, primarily, but also a passer, rebounder and initiator of zone offense. And, most recently, as an example.

Wiltjer gives UK Coach John Calipari a living, breathing example of how a player can blossom, as evidenced in the last three games by 48 points and a palpable air of confidence.

Barely two weeks ago, Wiltjer was primarily a catch-and-shoot specialist on offense and a locked-and-unloaded defender. Opponents exploited. His coach challenged him to change. He did.

"I asked Kyle — what happened? — in front of his teammates," Calipari said Friday. "Why did you change?

"He said, 'Because I was mad at how I was playing. I was embarrassed.'"

The nadir for Wiltjer came at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10. He played a season-low 14 minutes, in part, because Vandy acted upon the impression that he was a weak-link defender.

In his post-game news conference, Calipari bluntly confirmed that widely held view and gave Wiltjer an ultimatum: Get better or get to the bench.

"Why did I do it?" Calipari said by way of explaining his unsparing comments. "Because I wasn't getting any change just talking to him and the team.

"I'm not deriding him. I'm just making it factual. That if you look, that's what they're doing. We need that to change."

Wiltjer acknowledged the painful experience of the game at Vandy. It only hurt more that Vandy players echoed Calipari's assessment.

"It made me feel bad," Wiltjer said. "I just wanted to get back in the gym and get better. And I feel I've done a good job just getting better every day, improving from that game and using that as motivation."

According to Calipari, other UK players have described Wiltjer as "an animal" in recent practices. "Just an animal," the UK coach said in repeating himself.

An animal? Wiltjer?

To play with the animal analogy, he's been more golden retriever than boa constrictor. Pleasant. Agreeable. Non-threatening.

"Dunking every ball," Calipari said in explaining the animal that is now Wiltjer. "Screaming on every dunk. Sprinting up and down the floor. Blocking out. Going and grabbing rebounds in traffic. Trying to get Alex (Poythress) to dunk. Screaming for Alex when Alex dunks."

Wiltjer acknowledged a more spirited approach.

"I've been more vocal in practice," he said. "Kind of pushing myself harder than I thought I could push myself. Push through it and kind of lead guys in practice."

For the umpteenth time, Calipari noted that he'd like all his players to be such animals.

"The ability to go in a game and battle," he said. "That's what this all will come back to. Do you want it more than the other guy?"

So Kentucky staged an unusually strenuous practice for late January on Thursday, he said. He spoke of the peace of mind that comes with full effort. He mentioned team play as a means of success in basketball and life. The Cats still lack trust in one another, as evidenced by getting outplayed down the stretch in Tuesday's loss at Alabama.

"We still are too into ourselves," Calipari said, "and that's what we're working on. ... It's so much easier in basketball and in life when you play for somebody else."

With a telling chuckle, Calipari added, "For these guys, it's a really hard game."

Wiltjer made it look relatively easy and fun at Alabama. On his first shot, he pump-faked his defender, then pulled back for a fadeaway jumper. The move exuded confidence.

"Yeah, I feel I've been working hard and working in practice," he said. "Going into the game and trying to be as confident as I am in practices is a key."

With opponents playing a good bit of zone, Kentucky has placed Wiltjer in an important position at the elbow, From the middle of a 2-3 zone, he can shoot, pass or move to the basket.

"I always try to be aggressive and look for open shots," he said. If the defender closes in, Wiltjer looks for a teammate along the baseline (think Poythress dunks at Auburn) or a pass to the wing.

"If they have to play that guy, it makes everybody's job a lot easier," Calipari said of Wiltjer's role in attacking a zone. "And he's comfortable in there. He wants the ball in there."


SEC Standings

Conf. All

Mississippi 5-0 16-2

Florida 5-0 15-2

Alabama 4-1 12-6

Missouri 3-2 14-4

Arkansas 3-2 12-6

Kentucky 3-2 12-6

Texas A&M 2-3 12-6

Vanderbilt 2-3 8-9

Auburn 2-3 8-10

Mississippi St. 2-3 7-10

LSU 1-4 10-6

South Carolina 1-4 11-7

Tennessee 1-4 9-8

Georgia 1-4 7-11

Saturday's games

Arkansas at S. Carolina, 1:30 p.m.

Alabama at Tennessee, 2 p.m.

LSU at Kentucky, 4 p.m.

Vanderbilt at Missouri, 5 p.m.

Georgia at Texas A&M, 6 p.m.

Florida at Mississippi St., 8 p.m.

Mississippi at Auburn, 8 p.m.


SEC Standings

Conf. All

Mississippi 5-0 16-2

Florida 5-0 15-2

Alabama 4-1 12-6

Missouri 3-2 14-4

Arkansas 3-2 12-6

Kentucky 3-2 12-6

Texas A&M 2-3 12-6

Vanderbilt 2-3 8-9

Auburn 2-3 8-10

Mississippi St. 2-3 7-10

LSU 1-4 10-6

South Carolina 1-4 11-7

Tennessee 1-4 9-8

Georgia 1-4 7-11

Saturday's games

Arkansas at S. Carolina, 1:30 p.m.

Alabama at Tennessee, 2 p.m.

LSU at Kentucky, 4 p.m.

Vanderbilt at Missouri, 5 p.m.

Georgia at Texas A&M, 6 p.m.

Florida at Mississippi St., 8 p.m.

Mississippi at Auburn, 8 p.m.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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