LEXINGTON - Kentucky coach John Calipari issued a challenge to Kyle Wiltjer following Kentucky’s loss to Duke last week.
After seeing Wiltjer score just five points against the Blue Devils following a 19-point outing in a season-opening win over Maryland, Calipari asked Wiltjer to work harder to get his shot and be more aggressive without the ball.
Wiltjer responded to Calipari’s call by scoring a season-high 23 points Friday night in the Wildcats’ 101-49 rout of Lafayette at Rupp Arena.
The sophomore forward drained a career-high seven shots from 3-point range and produced the second 20-point game of his career, coming within one point of his career high, a 24-point performance in a win over Loyola (Md.) last year.
Wiltjer said he “wasn’t moving without the ball” in the Duke game, but made the proper adjustments. He said Calipari is “great” at pushing his squad and “gets the best out of us.”
“You see how energetic he is out there and it’s really because of his passion to win and he wants the best for us later down the road,” Wiltjer said. “He’s not looking at this game, he just wants us to get better as a team. One way of doing that is pushing individual players one at a time. He does a great job of that.”
Calipari also wants Wiltjer to keep shooting, especially when opportunity knocks as it did Friday against the outmanned Leopards.
“He wanted me to shoot open shots when I had them,” Wiltjer said. “He is confident in my shot. I just wanted to move and space the court well, so I could either (pass) to my teammates or get open shots. It’s always good as a shooter to see some go down, especially when I went on a bad shooting spurt (in the second half). Just to see some go down is a good feeling as a shooter.”
With the exception of a stretch in the second half, Wiltjer was on task and producing results for the Cats. He opened Kentucky’s scoring with back-to-back 3-pointers and drained five more treys in the second half.
His lone mistake in the second half was a lack of movement without the ball.
“There was a stretch in the second half where he wasn't (getting open),” Calipari said. “He was not moving. He wasn't — he has to work hard to create the shot before he catches. If he doesn't, I'm going to play Willie (Cauley-Stein). That's just how it is. I'm telling you what I told him: ‘If you don't work hard to create space and a shot for yourself — before you catch the ball — and I'm watching, you're out.’
“So today, what he did, he (took it) personally in the second half, he saw gaps, erased to those gaps and guys found him, also, and he made shots. He's not going to go 7 for 11 from the 3 every time. But I believe he can go 4 for 11 or 5 for 11 every time. I believe that. I believe he's that good. But he can't do it jogging to his spot, or not being prepared to shoot. You're not going to do it.”
For most of the game, Wiltjer was on target and took advantage of his opportunity. He created adequate spacing for most of the second half and made his five treys from various spots in the floor.
“We really worked on spacing,” Wiltjer said. “Coach Cal does a great job of teaching us where to go when we don’t have the ball, so that we’re not just standing around.”
It was Julius Mays who found Wiltjer on most of his shots. Mays dished out a team-high 10 assists and was responsible for giving Wiltjer most of his opportunities on the perimeter.
“He’s a great passer and he did a great job finding me and giving me shots,” Wiltjer said.
Although the Wildcats dominated the Leopards, Wiltjer knows Kentucky has more room for improvement.
“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “We just want to come into practice and work hard so that we can become a better team. Right now, we’re nowhere near where we can be.”