By ASHLEY SCOBY
Kentucky had just won by 32 points against Samford Tuesday night, but the post-game mood of the Wildcats did not reflect the point gap. After heading into the locker room with a 45-14 lead, UK only outscored Samford 43-42 in the second half, drawing the ire of Coach John Calipari.
The cause for his team’s sluggish second half, according to Calipari, was a lack of conditioning. He said that no player on the team could play for longer than three minutes at a time because they were so “out of shape.” With this in mind, he will institute “Camp Cal for the next three weeks,” which will get the players’ heart rates up to 175-180, according to the coach.
While lack of conditioning was pointed to as being the main culprit of how closely Samford played Kentucky in the second half, some of the same problems from the Cats’ two most recent losses – Baylor and Notre Dame – persisted.
Kyle Wiltjer’s slump has been one of UK fans’ most talked-about issues this season. In Wiltjer’s first three games, he totaled 16-29 shooting for 55.2% shooting (12-19 from behind the arc for 63.2%). Since then, he has shot 1-5, 1-4, 0-4, 1-9 and 1-5 from the three-point line.
“I’m just trying to get a lot of extra work in to work my way out of this and become a better basketball player,” Wiltjer said.
That extra work begins and ends in the same place for UK basketball players: the Joe Craft Center, about a 50-foot walk from their home at Wildcat Coal Lodge. According to Calipari, the players, including Wiltjer, haven’t been utilizing that opportunity as much as his team did last year.
“Last year (Jarrod Polson) and Kyle were in the gym as much as Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist) and Anthony (Davis),” he said. “They have not been in the gym one night this year.”
What gives? Why are the hardest workers from last year not dribbling basketballs late at night, getting shots up hour after hour? Last year’s team had the “Breakfast Club.” But now, Calipari is saying his team is out of shape and his players aren’t getting in enough practice time.
“We’re just busy,” Wiltjer said. “We just really need to focus on making sure any time off we have, just getting in the gym. We just want to, going forward, keep that intensity and keep working hard.”
For players who are going through so-called slumps, the key has always been to get into the same kind of shooting rhythm the player is used to. Wiltjer says his mechanics haven’t changed since his three-point production started slipping earlier in the season. He says his focus is to just keep getting shots up and working on all aspects of his game to compensate for any lack of offense.
Wiltjer, although still struggling offensively against Samford Tuesday, produced otherwise: seven rebounds, four assists and a steal crowded his stat line.
No matter the statistics, however, Calipari wants his team practicing more than the amount of time he is allowed to coach them per NCAA rules. That extra practice – what last year’s national champions were known for – is the key to breaking out of shooting slumps and building stamina. But it may also have a higher purpose than purely physical rewards.
“Some of it may be mentally, you’re not strong enough,” Calipari said of his team being ‘out of shape.’ “You’re soft, so the conditioning is good. It makes you stronger mentally.”
The Cats will next take on Portland Saturday at 12 p.m.