Kyle Wiltjer has been hot before. There are times when the ball should be in his hands and the Cats should let him shoot. Nobody on Kentucky will dispute that.
But in all his time at UK, not once has Wiltjer demanded the ball. Of all the times to do it, Wiltjer, who had just two total points in his first two Southeastern Conference games, asked for a play Tuesday with the game on the line.
John Calipari was perfectly OK with it.
“There was no surprise,” Coach Cal said. “I’m happy. Thank you. This is supposed to be their team.”
According to Calipari, it was the first time Kyle had ever stepped up and asked for a play to run through him. Coach Cal embraced the confidence and let Wiltjer run with it. He followed through with a layup to put UK up 66-60 with 3:31 to play.
“He even came back after he made that shot, came back and said, run another play for him, and we did,” Calipari said. “And then when he came back on the third one, I said, ‘Cool out, man. Come on, let somebody else try to shoot it.’ ”
Wiltjer performed admirably in Tuesday night’s 75-65 win over Tennessee, diversifying his approach by mixing up his 3-point shots with a concerted effort to attack the rim. The sophomore forward finished with a team-high 17 points and five rebounds against a notably physical Tennessee team.
His teammates noticed the change and confidence in his approach.
“The play that Kyle called for himself, he knew he had the hot hand throughout the game and he called for a play for himself,” freshman forward Nerlens Noel said. “He put it on himself and he made the big play. That’s just a part of it, taking responsibility and just stepping up.”
Wiltjer said he called the play because of confidence he had built in practice. It was a big boost for a player who had been embarrassed on defense and scored just two points in the last two games.
“It didn’t surprise me,” freshman Alex Poythress said. “Kyle always hits his shots in practice, so if he wants to shoot the ball he can. Nobody has any problems with anyone taking shots on this team.”
The team’s success is largely tied with Wiltjer’s individual success. He’s averaging 13.4 points in Kentucky’s 11 wins and only 5.6 points in its five losses. Take away the 14 points against Louisville and his average in the losses is only 3.5 points.
In other words, UK needs him.
“It helps us out a lot,” Poythress said when Wiltjer is making shots. “It builds his confidence. It builds our confidence. When he’s out there, he brings a lot of things to the table.”
Sand for sand
Coach Cal doesn’t necessarily support the eye-for-an-eye approach, but he doesn’t want his players to turn the other cheek either.
In a physical, sometimes ugly battle with Tennessee, elbows were thrown and technical fouls were called on both teams. When things started to turn a little chippy in the second half, the refs took control of the game and starting blowing the whistles.
As a result, two Volunteers fouled out and so did Archie Goodwin.
While the Cats held on to the win against Tennessee on Tuesday night, the fight was anything but pretty.
“It got a little bit chippy,” Poythress said, “but that’s how every game is supposed to be. Everyone’s trying to be physical and we’ll try to be physical back and not back down.”
Calipari was perfectly OK with his team not backing down from Tennessee.
“If there’s anybody that was getting sand kicked in their face, at some point, you have to stand up,” Coach Cal said.
Calipai seemed happy to see his Cats stepping up to the plate and staying in the game despite the roughness from the Vols.
“We don’t teach that,” Calipari said. “I’m not teaching it, but I know this: You put your heels in the sand. Like if I see somebody talking to one of my players and they are not challenging back, I’m not happy.”
Perhaps the rougher, tougher version of the Cats is why they out-rebounded an opponent for the first time in three games and kept Tennessee off the offensive glass.
“You’ve got to be a man,” Calipari said. “This is a man’s game and this is a man’s league we play in. You have to play through pumps; quit crying about fouls. Everybody is fouling everybody.”
Calipari forcing Goodwin to slow down
Though not his worst performance, Goodwin was noticeably out of control Tuesday and oftentimes took the ball into traffic against two or three defenders with a teammate open.
“He struggled today,” Calipari said. “He was a little bit out of control, playing too fast.”
Altogether, Goodwin made only two shots in 10 attempts and fouled out with more than three minutes to go in the game. His teammates were still happy with his performance because of his exertion.
“Archie, he’s consistent for the most part,” Poythress said. “He’s scoring when he needs to, making jump shots. He’s looking for players. He’s looking for other players, and he’s making more basketball plays. He’s playing well for the most part, I think.”
But there is no doubt that some of Goodwin’s drives were erratic against the Vols and sometimes unwarranted. After Ryan Harrow stole a ball at midcourt in the first half, Goodwin tried a SportsCenter Top 10 dunk instead of passing it back to Harrow for an easy layup.
Calipari said he’s been working with Goodwin on a floater – a la Derrick Rose and Darius Miller – to force him to come to a jump stop so it slows him down, gets his head up and prevents him from barreling into traffic.
“When he did (shoot it), he made it,” Coach Cal said. “The one he missed, we rebounded and made.”
Mays plays to his strengths
When Calipari talks about his guys playing to their strengths, perhaps no one should pay attention more than Julius Mays.
At 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, he isn’t your typical Kentucky player under Coach Cal. He lacks speed, height and athleticism, but he makes up for it with experience and shooting.
So what does Coach Cal want him to do then? Paging Captain Obvious. Calipari wants him to shoot.
“I get mad when he’s catching the ball at the 3?point line and the guy is in the lane and he doesn’t shoot it,” Calipari said. “Literally the guy has a foot in the lane running at it, but he’s in the lane. You caught it, you have to get it off and shoot it.”
Most coaches will tell you that when your shot isn’t falling – which it wasn’t for awhile for Mays – to do other things than just keep shooting. That isn’t necessarily the case with Coach Cal, who often tells him players to forget about the previous shot.
It’s worked of late as Mays has hit eight 3 pointers in his last four games, including two big treys from the wing in the second half that gave UK breathing room as it closed out Tennessee.
Calipari doesn’t necessarily want him to stop driving altogether, but he doesn’t want him to do it looking to score, as he did against Texas A&M when he was frequently blocked in the paint.
“My thing to him is, when you drive, drive to pass,” Calipari said. “Don’t drive to score. You’re not big enough. You’re not athletic enough. Shoot the 3, one dribble pull?up, or drive to pass.”
Even when his shot isn’t falling, Calipari wants to keep him on the floor because he does so many other things well.
“His assist-to-turnover ratio may be one of the best in the NCAA,” Coach Cal ssaid.
Sure enough, Mays entered the week 15th in the country with a 3.13 assist-to-turnover ratio.