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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach John Calipari emphasized that he believes his team “can still turn the corner” and salvage the season despite being only 13-5 going into Saturday’s game against LSU. But to do that, he’s right about needing more players to buy in like Kyle Wiltjer has.
The sophomore forward came into the season with huge expectations and as the only player back off last year’s national championship team with any significant experience, even though he played only limited minutes. He got off to a rousing start with 19 points and six rebounds in a season-opening win over Maryland, but then managed just five against Duke. He came back with 23 points against Lafayette, then went four games without hitting double figures again.
He hit a stretch of six games where he scored in double figures in five games, including 17 in a loss at Louisville. However, the low point came two games later when he got only two points at Vanderbilt and was publicly criticized by Calipari for his lack of defense in his 14 minutes of play. The next game against Texas A&M, he did not score in 19 minutes.
But rather than give in, Wiltjer went to work. Calipari noted how he began to spend even more time on the practice court. He had 17 points and rebounds in a win over Tennessee. He got 17 points, five assists and four rebounds in a victory at Auburn. At Alabama, he had 14 points, seven rebounds and two assists. But 11 of those points came in the first half before it took over 17 minutes for him to get a shot the second half when Alabama came from behind to win.
“We didn’t close it out. They made their run and we didn’t execute down the stretch. We didn’t get stops and didn’t get key rebounds,” Wiltjer said after the game.
He was right, too, and failed to possibly make the block out on two late Alabama misses that turned into easy field goals.
Yet he never complained about not getting the basketball and having to wait patiently for his chance while guards Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow drove and missed, drove and missed, and then drove and missed again.
But what you have to like about Wiltjer — and maybe this point get hammered home to him during last year’s national championship season — is that he values winning more anything.
“I mean it kills you any time you lose, so it hurt, especially because we knew we could have won the game. We didn’t execute down the stretch, so it definitely hurts a lot,” Wiltjer said.
Kentucky fans, though, are buying into Wiltjer. Consider these Twitter posts made during Tuesday’s game”
— Words I thought I’d never hear from Tom Leach: “Wiltjer fakes, BLOWS BY HIS MAN, down the lane, finger roll, GOOD!”
— Where there’s a Wiltjer, there’s a way.
— I’ve joked that he’s like an Adam Morrison with fundamentals. If he develops D (defense) he makes this team exponentially better.
— Wiltjer is kind of like having dial up Internet .. So slow yet so exciting when you finally connect.
In the last three games, Wiltjer is 18-for-33 from the field, including 6-for-14 from 3-point range. He’s had 16 rebounds and nine assists. He’s shown he can score in a variety of ways inside and has made some nifty passes to get baskets for others. His defense? It has been better but with the way UK is struggling on offense — Harrow is 12-for-33 and Goodwin 9-for-29 from the field the last three games and Alex Poythress has not taken more eight shots in any SEC game — it seems imperative to have Wiltjer on the court because he seems to have the best sense now of how Calipari wants his players to play.
“When I say buy in, it starts with individual players, that each individual player has to accept his role and has to play the way the team needs him to play,” Calipari said. “That’s the first buy-in. That’s been the hard one for us.”
But Wiljter has done it.
“The second buy-in becomes we have to be in tune with each other and on the same page and we have to buy in how our team must play for us to win and have the best chance to win,” Calipari said. “Those are the two buy-ins all coaches go through. The second part of that is getting them to play. Coaches, if we have to coach emotion and intensity and effort, you’re not really coaching basketball.”
Again, Wiltjer seems to have got that and that’s why UK has to remember that more often to potentially avoid more disappointments like the one at Alabama.