By LARRY VAUGHT
Having Kyle Wiltjer score in a variety of ways against Tennessee did more than just add to the Kentucky sophomore’s confidence.
“It builds his confidence and builds our confidence, too,” UK freshman Alex Poythress said. “When he is out there, he brings a lot of things to the table.
He is 3-point shooter and is a great free throw shooter, too. But he showed he can score in other ways.
“I think he can be a good defender when he wants to be and when he chases down the ball screens. He’s working on getting rebounds and just getting better at that, too.”
Wiltjer had 17 points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 26 minutes Tuesday in a 75-65 win over Tennessee. He’s averaging 10.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game going into Saturday night’s game at Auburn. He is UK’s top free throw shooter (80 percent), but has taken just 20 free throws in 16 games.
Kentucky coach John Calipari knows what it would take to get Wiltjer more free throws.
“You’ve got to be aggressive, play through bumps and be tough, ball fake and go in with the idea you’re going to get fouled, not going to avoid contact and say the guy grabbed me. They ain’t calling that,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to go in with an idea to hit baskets. Ball fake and go through, not ball fake and avoid, fadeaway, step back, all of that stuff that we’re doing. You can’t get fouled. They’re not going to just give us calls so you’ve got to create that contact, get a foul and get to the line.”
Wiltjer did ask twice late in Tuesday’s game to have plays run for him — and he scored both times.
“Kyle is always hitting shots in practice. If he wants to shoot the ball, he can. Nobody on this team has a problem with anybody taking shots. We can all hit shots. We are all unselfish players. If one person says he can hit a shot, we are going to get him the ball like we did Kyle,” Poythress said. “We just pass to him if he’s open and we know he will hit the shot. We have confidence in him.”
Here’s what Wiltjer had to say after Tuesday’s win.
Question: Did you make a conscious effort to be more active on defense in this game?
Wiltjer: “Yeah, that is a new way to play on defense with me hedging on the ball screen. It kind of takes the pressure off me. I think we are going to stick with that. It has worked the last two games and that’s the main thing.”
Question: Do you and Julius Mays work a lot on plays together?
Wiltjer: “We run a lot of handoffs and stuff together. When you have two shooters, it is hard to defend and something we want to use more.”
Question: Why did you attack the rim more in this game?
Wiltjer: “Coaches have just been on me to drive every day in practice. I kind of had that mentality in practice and I guess it carried over. They were playing my (outside) shot pretty heavy.”
Question: How is it to see what Nerlens Noel has done in recent games?
Wiltjer: “His intensity has been great on both sides of the ball. He’s been active and when he’s like that, we are lot better.”
Question: Have you changed anything in your workouts recently?
Wiltjer: “Every day in practice just going hard. Coaches have been really on me to be aggressive and look for my shot and using that to kind of get in the lane a little more.”
Question: Why did you ask for the first time to have plays run specifically for you?
Wiltjer: “I was just feeling it a little bit. I knew we had plays in for me. I knew it would be open. I just called it. I have been working hard in practice and trying to stay positive even though my shots have not been going down. Staying confident is the key.”
Question: How hard was it to stay confident overall after Calipari and others questioned your defensive play at Vanderbilt?
Wiltjer: “We have a great coaching staff and it is really easy to just forget about it when you go in the gym and work hard. (Assistant) Coach (Kenny) Payne does a great job of working us out and just taking the pressure off by putting in the work.”
Question: But is it easy to forget when you are reading about it in the newspaper or hearing about it on sports talk shows or TV?
Wiltjer: “I don’t read a lot. I just live my life, go to school and play basketball sometimes.”
Question: How different is it this year to have to win games like this compared to last year when some victories came easier?
Wiltjer: “We know every game is going to be close. We can use that as motivation because we want to be a team that can womp down on people. We still have things where we break down that hold us back, but I think if we keep improving we will be okay.”
Question: How is your role changed from last year to this year?
Wiltjer: “Coach Cal knows what I have been through, so not only does he want me to lead every day in practice, but wants me to be confident. I have put in a lot of work, so he wants me to be a better player. I just see my role expanding more and I want to keep improving.”
Question: What have you told the freshmen about expectations here and the type of questions they would get when the team was not winning?
Wiltjer: “I am keeping the guys focused on getting better and not reading stuff. We are a hard working team. There’s no question about that. We just need to keep coming together. We have taken a little longer (than last year) but coach Cal has done a good job of coaching us every day in practice.”
Question: Are the practices harder this year?
Wiltjer: “They have been very hard. This is the hardest we have played in our lives. Just getting that mentality of going hard every drill is big for us.”
Question: How big could this game be for your confidence since you scored in a variety of ways and did more than just hit 3-pointers?
Wiltjer: “It is important. Coaches have done a good job of working me out every day and getting my mentality to not just be a shooter. I have been doing other things. If I can do more than just shoot, it will help my team a lot.”
Question: How do you react to people saying this team lacks a Patrick Patterson or Darius Miller type of leader?
Wiltjer: “We don’t really try to compare to last year’s team or any past team. We just try to focus on ourselves.”
Question: Do those type questions annoy you?
Wiltjer: “Not really. We just try not to compare is all.”