Two weeks ago, John Calipari spoke in highly uncertain terms about Kyle Wiltjer’s future in the Kentucky program.
The sophomore forward had been a virtual non-presence in the Wildcats’ first two Southeastern Conference games, scoring only two points and grabbing just three rebounds in 33 minutes of playing time against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
Calipari called Wiltjer out publicly, something he rarely does with struggling players, but a gambit that may have helped turned his season around. Since then, Wiltjer has been a steady hand for the Cats, averaging 16 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists in the last three league games.
Now, the UK boss hopes Wiltjer’s turnaround may rub off on some of his struggling teammates.
“I asked Kyle, ‘What happened?’ In front of his teammates, ‘Why did you change?’” Calipari said before Friday’s practice at the Craft Center. “He said, ‘Because I was mad at how I was playing, I was embarrassed.’
“I publicly talked about him after the Vanderbilt game. Why did I do it? Because I wasn’t getting any change just talking to him and the team. I’ve done that with a couple other guys. ‘But (they say) you shouldn’t say things publicly about guys.’ I’m not deriding them, I’m just making it factual that, if you look this is what they’re doing and we need that to change. He changed. I asked the guys, ‘What changed for him?’ He’s like an animal in practice, just an animal.”
Asked what an “animal” looks like in one of his practice sessions, Calipari explained: “Dunking every ball. Screaming on dunks. Sprinting down the floor. Blocking out. Going and grabbing rebounds in traffic. He’s an animal right now. Screaming on dunks. Trying to get Alex (Poythress) to scream on dunks. Screaming for Alex when Alex dunks.”
“I have been pushing myself harder than I have ever thought I could push myself,” Wiltjer said. “I am trying to lead the guys through practice. I am almost practicing harder than I would play in a game just to make the games easier.”
“I hate losing,” he said. “I hope everyone has the same passion to win. Yesterday’s practice we just came out and made sure we were on each other to be loud and vocal.”
Calipari would like to see some feral aggression from players like Poythress and Archie Goodwin on Saturday when Kentucky (12-6, 3-2 SEC) plays host to LSU (10-6, 1-4) at 4 p.m. ET at Rupp Arena. Both played poorly in Tuesday’s 59-55 loss at Alabama. Goodwin hit only two of 12 shots from the field, took several ill-advised shots, and finished with only seven points. Poythress played only 15 minutes due to foul trouble which eventually disqualified him on a six-point, five-rebound night.
The UK coach said true change will only come when the players recognize they have no other choice.
“If you’re delusional, you’re not going to change,” Calipari said. “Delusional guys don’t change. They just think that, ‘I’m good. My stuff is right. It’s somebody else.’ If you’re delusional, you don’t change.”
Calipari was hopeful the Cats had gotten over the hump with a 75-53 win at Auburn, but learned that it’s an ongoing work in progress. He hinted that he may be forced to use the bench as a motivator more than he’s done to this point with a depth-challenged roster.
“I think we’ve got great kids who want to do well,” he said. “(But) there’s nobody to mimic. We need some guys to sit right now. There are some guys who should not be playing but about four, five minutes that are playing 30. They really don’t deserve to be on the court but, where we are right now, they’ve got to be out there. Or, we’ve got to sit them and take the consequences, which is the next step.”