The Wildcats were set to head back to their respective hometowns for a three-day Christmas break, so it would have been understandable if their minds were drifting to travel plans and home-cooked meals. It ended up being the man with the longest voyage home who started the run that allowed UK to coast to victory.
Portland, Ore., native Kyle Wiltjer started a 22-4 run with a 3-pointer as UK turned the narrow deficit into a 23-point lead. Wiltjer scored 10 points of his career-high 25 points during the spurt, helping the Cats go home happy for the holidays.
"It was a good feeling especially being able to go home over break with a win," Wiltjer said. "It's a good feeling. Now that I can go home and spend time with my family, that makes this break even better."
Wiltjer was coming off a game against Samford that saw him hit just 2-of-7 shots from the field, but late in the game, Calipari tested his mettle by calling his number on a late play. Wiltjer responded by draining a 3-pointer on a pass from Darius Miller, which told Calipari all he needed to know about the toughness and heart of his freshman big man.
"I was really happy because he didn't shoot the ball particularly well last game," Calipari said. "In the last huddle, I said, 'We're going to see what this kid's made of. He hasn't been close to making a shot. We're going to give him another one and I want to see.' "
His outside shooting from the forward position stretches opposing defenses in a way that no one else on the roster can, but Wiltjer also presents a problem for Calipari. Defensively, he is slightly behind his teammates and opponents have capitalized on a regular basis. However, he is such an offensive threat that Calipari knows he has to find a way to feel comfortable with playing Wiltjer.
"We've got to help him defensively," Calipari said. "We've got to do some schemes with him because there are matchups he's just not ready for. We need that shooting and that scoring on the floor. I've got to come up with some schemes to help him."
Calipari is also going to be asking Wiltjer to recognize his limitations and focus on what can do on the defensive end.
"I've got to get him to take more charges," Calipari said. "(Wiltjer is) not going to block shots, charge, block out more, and then when he's in the post we've got to do some things."
Heading into Christmas, Wiltjer isn't the only of his players Calipari is having to coach heavily, or in his words, "drag." The break will give the players a breather from their coach, and vice versa.
"I'm fighting my point guard (Marquis Teague) to be a point guard," Calipari said. "I'm fighting Darius (Miller) to be tougher. I'm fighting Kyle for defense. I'm fighting Eloy (Vargas) to come up with balls. They've got to want that stuff more than I want it."
The Wildcats will head home to open presents and spend time with family and Calipari wants to make sure the players have a happy holiday.
"He told us to keep up our conditioning," Wiltjer said. "He also told us to enjoy the time with our family. He really emphasized that. We don't get a lot of off time, so it was important to enjoy it and get ready for the next games."
With a third of the season in the books, Calipari is happy with the progress of his team, but at the same time, he knows the Wildcats have yet to live up to their potential.
"If we click and we come together and we're all aggressive and we're all bouncing and talking and we're all making easy plays, this stuff gets scary," Calipari said. "We're not close to that right now, but this thing could get scary."