The buzz was unmistakable.
As Kyle Wiltjer got the ball in the post and got ready to shoot one of his trademark hook shots against Loyola on Dec. 22, the 22,774 fans in Rupp Arena held their breath and waited. All anyone could talk about at the time was his hook shot.
Wiltjer showed that game he had much more to offer, scoring a career-high 24 points while logging 25 minutes. Coming out of Oregon as a McDonald’s High-School All-American, Wiltjer was known to have an inside game that complemented his pretty stroke from beyond the arc. He was a threat every time he touched the ball.
“His ability to score the ball makes us a totally different team when he’s on the floor,” John Calipari said. “It really does. Now all of a sudden the coaches are saying ‘Oh my gosh, now he has Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer on the floor. What do we do here?’ “
But when you’re playing time diminishes, so does your potential impact on the court. After that Loyola game, Wiltjer averaged just 10.2 minutes per game, failing to reach double-digit scoring for all six of them. The reason was defense.
Coach Cal knew Wiltjer possessed the ability to stretch the floor for opposing defenses when he was out on the court, but as his defensive liabilities caught up to him, his opportunities to showcase his offensive abilities diminished.
Ole Miss File
Record: 15-10, 5-6 in SEC
Head coach: Andy Kennedy (120-74 at Ole Miss)
Player to watch: Murphy Holloway (10.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 54.1 FG pct.)
Series history: UK leads 98-13
Last meeting: UK won 75-66 in the quarterfinals of the 2011 SEC Tournament
As his playing time decreased, Wiltjer got the message and worked on honing his defensive game and strength.
“I’m working out in the weight room to get stronger so I can become a better player,” Wiltjer said. “I have confidence in myself. I feel like I’m going to put in the time, and hopefully I’ll get better.”
Wiltjer knows how vital he is to this team if they are to meet the expectations and deliver an eighth national championship to Lexington. On a team that plays just seven guys most of the times, his added dimension and scoring ability could be crucial come March.
“He’s getting better and there’s no question that he’s understanding defensively what he’s going to have to do,” Calipari said. “He’s rebounding the ball better which leaves him in the game. You and I know that when he’s in the game, boy does he stretch defenses; wow. That means now you’ve got four guys, you’ve got slashers, people that are shooting 3s.
Over the last six games Wiltjer has averaged more than 13 minutes per game, reaching double figures in scoring for the first time in his Southeastern Conference career with 12 points against South Carolina. Wiltjer says that being more confident and getting stronger are what have helped him reach the level that he’s at now.
“When he gets stronger from the waist down, you’re going to see one of the best players in the country,” Calipari said. “He will be one of the best because he’s one of the most skilled, he’s long, he’s tough, he runs. He just has to get stronger.”
The top-ranked Cats (25-1, 11-0 SEC) play Ole Miss (15-6, 5-6 SEC) on Saturday at 4 p.m. on the SEC Network in a game that should test the development of Wiltjer’s strength and defensive ability. Physically, Coach Cal said Ole Miss can match up with UK as well as any team in the league.
“They’re probably going ot come in here ready to go to war,” Calipari said. “They’re the best offensive rebounding team in our league. As I watched the tape, if they have their way on the backboard they beat us.”
Coach Cal knows that if they are going to win the war with the rebounds, it starts on the glass, which, as Wiltjer pointed out, is all about angles.
“We know (Ole Miss) is very athletic,” Wiltjer said. “They’ve got athletic big guys. Just knowing angles, being there for charges, just little things like that, using my length, closing out and stuff like that (will help on Saturday). To be a skilled player offensively, it helps on defense as well, knowing where to be, and you don’t have to be the stopper, you can just be in the right spot at the right time. “
Wiltjer still has the hook in his repertoire, but as his defense has improved and he’s gained more opportunities to showcase his shooting ability, he’s shown he’s about more than just a hook shot. Ultimately, he understands that all he wants to do is what the team needs of him.
“I’m just trying to be confident,” Wiltjer said. “Go in there do my thing, and just go in there and shoot open shots, don’t have to force it. I definitely consider myself a good shooter, so I just try to work hard every day and become better.”
Cats going for 50 in a row against Rebels
Ever since Calipari took over as head basketball coach at Kentucky, the Cats have never lost a home game. Not a single one.
Not that Coach Cal is counting.
“I don’t even know what it is to be honest with you,” Calipari said Friday. “I have no idea. I know we haven’t lost in a while, but it’s not about that. It’s about getting better.”
The Wildcats are 15-0 at home this season and are in the midst of a 49-game home-winning streak, which is the longest active streak in the nation by 24 games. The next closest is Harvard at 25 games.
The last time Kentucky lost a home game was March 4, 2009, a 90-85 loss to Georgia.
“One of the things you have to do with kids like this and players like this when you’re trying to achieve greatness and trying to separate is they’ve got to feel comfortable letting go, which means when things start going south, as a coach you’ve got to take responsibility for them,” Calipari said. “And when things go good, it’s all about how they’re playing.”
Coach Cal feeling the ‘Lin-sanity’
Even Coach Cal has caught a case of “Lin-sanity.”
Asked Friday about the recent success of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, Calipari raved about his preparation and hard work.
“What everybody is missing on is that is he took advantage of an opportunity,” Calipari said. “That’s what he did. He was ready for an opportunity. I can tell you that he would never have gotten the opportunity if guys didn’t get injured. No one would know Jeremy Lin. But if we would have gotten the opportunity and wasn’t prepared, guess what? No one would know Jeremy Lin.”
Seemingly out of nowhere (Lin played college ball at Harvard), Lin has emerged from the end of the of the New York bench to grab the starting point guard position of the Knicks. He’s averaged 23.0 points and 9.1 assists in seven straight New York wins.
“It’s isn’t about a chance,” Calipari said. “It’s about being ready for an opportunity. When your opportunity comes, do you take advantage? That’s what he proved to all of us out there. It happens in our lives. You can either be an excuse maker or just keep plodding.”