With 13 games remaining on the Southeastern Conference schedule, UK players feel like they still have time to find the consistency that has eluded them throughout the season’s first 18 games.
That does not mean they haven’t begun to feel a sense of urgency.
“I think at yesterday’s practice a lot of urgency was shone,” said senior guard Julius Mays Friday. “It was one of the hardest practices we’ve had since I’ve been here.
“I hope guys are realizing it has to be turned around and we don’t have much time to keep saying the same things.”
The Wildcats’ latest set back came in a 59-55 loss at Alabama Tuesday, in which UK blew a nine-point halftime lead.
The loss came one game after the team had appeared to solve some of its issues in a 22-point romp at Auburn.
“I think we took a step forward in the Auburn game, and we took two steps back in the Alabama game,” Mays said. “All we can do is learn from it. We can’t hang our heads. We’ve still got a lot of conference play to go.”
What is the latest ailment for the young Wildcats?
There coach thinks it’s more of the same.
“The ability to go in the gym and have a competitive spirit and battle, that’s what this will all come back to,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “Do you want it worse than the other guy? Do you want the ball worse than he does? Do you want to stop him from scoring worse than he wants to score on you?”
Calipari notes that for the Wildcats to turn their season around, his players not only have to be sick of losing but they have to “get sick of where you are as a player too.”
Kyle Wiltjer. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Calipari frequently points to former Wildcats and current NBA players Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins as examples of players who successfully navigated similar turning points in their UK careers. Now, he has a first-hand example of a player on this team that has bought into the system and dramatically changed his level of play: sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer
“He’s an animal right now,” Calipari said of Wiltjer. “Screaming on dunks, trying to get Alex (Poythress) to scream on dunks, screaming for Alex when Alex dunks.”
Throughout the first season and a half of his UK career, Wiltjer followed a similar patter. When his outside shot was falling, he often finished among the Wildcats’ leading scorers, but when that shot went cold he failed to contribute in enough other areas to stay on the court.
In the SEC opener, Wiltjer scored just two points against Vanderbilt and after the game Calipari noted he had to remove Wiltjer from the lineup because Vanderbilt was exploiting him on defense on almost every possession.
Two days later, Wiltjer was scoreless for the first time this season in a home loss to Texas A&M.
Then something changed. Wiltjer scored 17 points against Tennessee. He added 17 more points to go with five assists at Aurbun. Against Alabama, he was one of the few Cats to play well, scoring 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
“We’ve got to embrace this and have fun, and that’s what I’ve been doing these last couple of days,” Wiltjer said.
Wiltjer’s transformation gives Calipari hope that other players can follow his lead, but he continues to stress that the change won’t happen without a concentrated effort in practice.
“If you’re know you’re not giving everything, you’re never going to have peace of mind even if we win,” he said. “The whole point of what we try to do as coaches is to get guys to understand what we teach you transfers to anything you do in life. Just like in life, in basketball you get what you deserve.”
If the Wildcats are to accomplish their goals this season, the change will need to come sooner rather than later.
Mays acknowledged that he thinks about the team’s thin NCAA Tournament resume.
“It’s a thought in the back of your had,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve really won a marquee game. In every big game that we’ve had, we kind of choked it off.”
Calipari isn’t using the risk of missing the NCAA Tournament to motivate his team. Instead, he notes that whether or not the team makes the adjustments he’s pushing for will decide its tournament fate. He thinks a failure to make those changes will guarantee an early end to the season for the Wildcats and a successful change will lead UK on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Mays knows the time to make those changes is rapidly running out.
“Either we go ahead and take that step to be really good now or we’re just going to be very disappointed because the season’s going to be over before you know it.”
UK takes on LSU at Rupp Arena Saturday at 4 p.m. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.