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Wiltjer finds shot, but Cal still seeking bigger strides from Cats

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Kyle Wiltjer scored 23 points on 7-of-9 3-point shooting in UK's 88-50 win over Lipscomb on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kyle Wiltjer scored 23 points on 7-of-9 3-point shooting in UK's 88-50 win over Lipscomb on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kyle Wiltjer's shooting struggles were well documented.

For six consecutive games, he had made no more than a single 3-pointer. Over that time, he was just 6 of 30 from beyond the arc and had seen his season 3-point percentage plummet from 63.2 to 34.7.

For a shooter of his reputation, it had to have felt good to see a career-high-tying seven 3s fall in just nine attempts. For his coach, it felt better to see him register another kind of career high.

"I don't care whether he made shots, he got 12 rebounds," John Calipari said.

For the first time in his 50 games at Kentucky, Wiltjer posted a double-double with 23 points and those aforementioned 12 rebounds. He split the boards evenly between the two halves and grabbed five on the offensive end in UK's 88-50 win over Lipscomb on Saturday.

"I kind of just went into the game having the mentality that I wanted to get some rebounds and mix it up," Wiltjer said.

Mix it up he did.

To open the game, the visitors - led by 6-foot-10, 285-pound freshman Stephen Hurt - had their way on the glass. In the first half, the Wildcat frontcourt players not named Wiltjer - Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein - combined for just five rebounds. To Calipari, that makes Wiltjer's rebounds impressive in spite of UK's wide final margin.

"You could say, well, they weren't that big," Calipari said. "Well, that big kid (Hurt) had nine rebounds at halftime. My two big guys, he had nine, so we had to go in there and mix it up a little bit."

At the opening tip, Wiltjer wasn't on the floor to stick his nose in. For the first time all season, Wiltjer came off the bench to allow Ryan Harrow to return to the starting lineup.

"I said, you know what?" Calipari said, recalling his ride to Rupp Arena. "I'm going to bring Kyle off the bench today. I figured it out an hour and a half before the game that that's what I wanted to do."

Considering Wiltjer's recent struggles, it would not have been a stretch to think the move was a motivational ploy on the part of Calipari, but that's not the case. Coach Cal said it was simply about getting his point guard back in the starting lineup and it came down to a decision between Poythress and Wiltjer. Once again, as Calipari said often last season, UK has more than five starters.

As for Wiltjer, returning to a reserve role did not affect his mindset.

"I just want to play my game whether I'm starting or coming off the bench," Wiltjer said. "I just wanted, when I got in there, to get some rebounds and I was lucky enough to be open."

Unlike in previous games, Wiltjer was able to capitalize on those chances. In searching for the difference, he looks no further than the hard work he logged in the week since UK last played.

"It shows how important extra work is and so hopefully we can keep working hard every day and keep getting better and making strides," Wiltjer said.

Certainly doing that on Saturday was the player who replaced Wiltjer as a starter. Harrow posted season highs in points (12) and minutes (31) against the Bisons while not committing a single turnover.

"I had a good week of practice so I felt like I was going to do good in the game today," Harrow said. "Taking some shots and missing some, but making some at the same time and staying aggressive and trying to find the open man and play defense. That's basically what I'm trying to do."

Harrow has also been undertaking an effort to be more vocal on the floor in an effort to address what Calipari believes to be a team-wide issue.

"It's frustrating, but we've gotten better," Calipari said. "We talked a little bit better today. Not where we need to be. What I want to do is get to a point where I don't have to yell, 'Talk.' "

UK's sophomore point guard recalled one instance when Calipari yelled at him specifically about talking more. Harrow's response was to speak up even when he didn't necessarily feel like he had anything worth saying.

"I might have been saying, 'Screen, screen, screen,' and the dude wasn't even up there to screen yet, so it was just something," Harrow said. "On defense, I (would say) a defensive term. 'Screen, screen, screen,' or something like that and the man wasn't even screening, so I was like, let me just say, 'Let's go!' from now on."

It might not be exactly what he was looking for, but Harrow making an effort to talk is progress.

The Cats just finished up a week of "Camp Cal," a week that greatly encouraged Calipari. Coach Cal didn't end up seeing quite the results he was hoping for, but the good news is that UK has a basketball-only week coming up. That makes the next seven days crucial in the development of this young team.

"I thought I'd see more of a change," Calipari said. "I saw a little change. We just went five days, and I saw a little change. So if I see a little change in this next week, from that point on, folks, we're not winning many."

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