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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kyle Wiltjer went into Thursdayâ€™s game knowing he would likely play more minutes because of Terrence Jones missing another game with a hand injury. He also went into the game wanting to make more shots.
â€œI wanted to go in there and play good minutes and keep grinding it out, and luckily tonight, a lot of the shots fell for me,â€ said Wiltjer, who was 7-for-11 from the field and 7-for-8 at the foul line to score a game-high 24 points, after Kentuckyâ€™s 87-63 win over Loyola (Maryland). â€œI wanted to try to hit open shots because last game I didnâ€™t feel like I was knocking down open shots. All of those little things that coach wanted to me to focus on, I tried to focus on.â€
Now Kentucky coach John Calipari wants the freshman forward to focus more on improving his defense.
â€œWe’ve got to help him defensively. I mean, we’ve got to do some schemes with him because there are certain matchups that he’s just not ready to go with. But we need that shooting and that scoring on the floor, so I’ve got to come up with some schemes to help him,â€ Calipari said.
â€œI think the kid has a toughness at heart, but we’re just going to have to help him. I’ve got to get him to take more charges, not going to block shots, charge, block out more, and then when he’s in the post we’ve got to do some things.â€
His father, Greg, a former professional basketball player, almost forgot to take the day off so he could watch what a 10 a.m. tip-off in Portland, Ore.
â€œI didnâ€™t realize the game was on at 10 oâ€™clock for us. At the last minute I asked for the day off so I could hang out and prepare for him coming home,â€ Greg Wiltjer said. â€œLuckily I got a chance to watch him stroke (his shots) and have a good game.â€
The Kentucky freshman has conceded that he has deficiencies on defense and understands what Calipari expects from him if he wants to play more, especially in key games after Jones comes back. His father says he â€œsees things that have validity when I hear something Cal said or Kyle saidâ€ about defense. He also says part of the defensive woes are the â€œnatural progressionâ€ of being a freshman.
â€œIf Iâ€ˆam the coach, there is some stuff kids have to learn, but there are some things that just have to play through in my opinion,â€ Greg Wiltjer said. â€œWhen Iâ€ˆlook at Kyle today, there were a few times he maybe he could have slid over differently. In general, I was kind of happy with his overall play.
â€œI am a big picture guy. You canâ€™t play perfect basketball. No one has ever had a perfect game. Michael Jordan made mistakes. It is good to be challenged, but even a good player may have a defensive lapse or take a bad shot. Then you have to come back and take a better shot or go get an offensive rebound.
â€œKyle being challenged now on his defense and rebounding will only make him a better player. The reason he was recruited was because he is a big kid who had skills and shoots the ball. Whatâ€™s happening now is he is being challenged to be more of a big and bang and rebound. Thatâ€™s never been the number one part of his game. If he gets that and continues to keep the skills he has offensively, he can be a great player.â€
Wiltjer scored 14 points in UKâ€™s opening game and had 19 in the third game. In the eight games after that, he managed just 32 points before his 24-point performance Thursday. He had scored five points on 2-for-7 shooting in Tuesdayâ€™s win over Samford.
Wiltjer went 3-for-6 from 3-point range â€” the rest of the team was a combined 0-for-6 Thursday. Calipari said that helps â€œstretchâ€ the defense when Wiltjer hits shot from the perimeter. Wiltjerâ€™s father said that was the way he was accustomed to see his son shoot in high school, AAU and international play.
â€œLately the Kyle you have seen was focused on trying to please his coach and listen to his coach, but he was thinking too much rather than playing the game,â€ Greg Wiltjer said. â€œI have been through that personally and know. You get in a right trying to do the right things so hard. Today he was just getting the ball and shooting. Thatâ€™s what he does.
â€œI told him shooters have to get in a flow. If you get in for two minutes, make something positive happen. Get a rebound or block out. Today he was shooting comfortably. Any kind of rhythm shooter, you can tell before the ball leaves his hands if it is a bad shot. Today, he took rhythm shots. Same thing with (Doron) Lamb. Shooters need to catch in rhythm and shoot. Cal has challenged him one-on-one and told him he believes in his offense and he just has to shoot it. But he has challenged him hard on defense and rebounding. I think he is moving better defensively.
â€œThe thing I see physically is Cal asking him to be a banger the way Josh Harrellson played lastÂ year. Post guys and rebound and play against the best post player. Kyle can be that, but heâ€™s not physically there today, but he eventually will be.â€
* * *
Wiltjer, like other UKâ€ˆplayers, left immediately after Thursdayâ€™s game to spend three days at home with his family.
â€œIf he makes all his connections, he will get in close to midnight and be here until we put him on a plane the evening of the 25th (Sunday) so he can be back for practice the next day,â€ Wiltjerâ€™s mother, Carol, said Thursday. â€œWe have it all planned out to have three good days. His brother and sister have all the things they want to do with him. We are just grateful coach Cal is letting him come home for three days.â€