By LARRY VAUGHT
10:20 AM EST, February 1, 2013
The first time Kentucky and Texas A&M met, Elston Turner and Kyle Wiltjer had dramatically opposite games.
Turner put on a historic performance in Rupp Arena to score 40 points and lead the Aggies to a stunning 83-71 win. He was 14-for-19 from the field, including 6-for-10 from 3-point range, and also had six rebounds and no turnovers in 37 minutes.
Wiltjer played just 19 minutes and the UK¿sophomore failed to score. He was 0-for-2 from the field, grabbed two rebounds and made a turnovers.
Now the two teams play again Saturday at Texas A&M and Turner and Wiltjer could be the game’s determining players again.
Since the A&M game, Wiltjer has played some of his best basketball at UK. He had 26 points in Tuesday’s win at Ole Miss even though he didn’t score the final 16 minutes. He was 10-for-19 from the field, but he also had seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. He didn’t make a turnover.
In UK’s last five SEC games, Wiltjer is averaging 16.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.0 steals per game while making 31 of 60 shots from the field. In UK's six losses, Wiltjer has averaged 7.0 points per game. In the 14 wins, he's averaged 14.1 points a game.
“I have been pushing myself harder than I have ever thought I could push myself. 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,” Wiltjer said recently when asked to explain his improvement after being blasted publicly by coach John Calipari for his poor play in the SEC opener at Vanderbilt. “I hate losing. I hope everyone has the same passion to win. We need to embrace this and have fun, and that is what I have been doing.”
Turner has gone the opposite direction since his record-setting game at UK. In the last five games since the victory over UK, he’s managed just 52 points. He’s missed 39 of 57 shots from the field. He got only four points against Florida. He managed just five against LSU. He didn’t score in the first half of Wednesday’s overtime win at Mississippi State before finishing with 11 points.
He also had seven turnovers at Mississippi State and has made at least one turnover in every game since the Kentucky win. His team had also lost every game — four straight — since the Kentucky win before rallying to get the victory at Mississippi State.
Wiltjer has blossomed by showcasing his entire game, not just his 3-point shooting. He’s shown the ability to drive and finish with either hand as well as set up teammates with nifty passes. ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said during Tuesday’s win at Ole Miss that Wiltjer “was the only Kentucky player that could make teammates better” because of his all-around ability.
Wiltjer has played more in the low post with the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein, a move that has helped him.
“I have always felt more comfortable playing in the low post. The more I do it, the more comfortable that I feel,” Wiltjer said.
Calipari has also adjusted his zone offense to get Wiltjer more touches near the free throw line where he can shoot or pass.
“If they’ve got to play that guy, it makes everybody else’s job a lot easier. And he’s comfortable in there. He wants the ball,” Calipari said.
Calipari said he “publicly talked about” Wiltjer and his play after UK’s win at Vanderbilt because “I wasn’t getting any change just talking to him and the team.”
However, he said unlike some other players, Wiltjer took the criticism as motivation and start spending more time in the gym and practicing hard.
“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. What changed? I asked the guys, what changed for him? He is like an animal in practice, just an animal,” Calipari said.
Texas A&M shot 47 percent from the field at Mississippi State and won the rebounding battle for the sixth time in seven SEC games. Junior guard Fabyon Harris led all scorers with 17 points, his eighth double-digit scoring game in his last 11 contests. Sophomore forward Kourtney Roberson finished with eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds and freshman J'Mychal Reese scored six of the Aggies’ eight points in overtime.
Calipari knows his team can’t relax because it won at Ole Miss. Kentucky followed a convincing road win at Auburn by blowing a 14-point lead and losing at Alabama.
“They are starting to trust each other. I enjoy the physicalness of the game (at Mississippi). I thought Alex (Poythress) was great,” Calipari said. “They are all way better than a month and a half ago. But this next team beat us at Rupp Arena.
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