Only a few possessions into Thursday night's SEC opener between Kentucky and Vanderbilt, it wasn't hard to figure out the Commodores' strategy to try to spring an upset.
They were going to attack Kyle Wiltjer off the dribble until he proved he could stop them.
Sometimes the player Wiltjer was guarding would merely isolate him and try to go at the rim. Other times Wiltjer's man would set a high ball screen for guard Kedren Johnson in hopes Wiltjer would switch it and have to defend a quicker man off the dribble. Regardless of what Vanderbilt did to attack Wiltjer, however, more often than not it resulted in a basket.
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Kentucky managed to stave off a furious second-half rally from Vanderbilt and escape with a 60-58 victory in spite of Wiltjer's woes, but John Calipari acknowledged he is not satisfied with the way his sophomore forward defended. Asked by reporters how Wiltjer can play better defense despite his lack of lateral quickness, Calipari said matter-of-factly, "You either don't stay in the game or figure it out."
"You play lower, you play tougher, you do anything you can to stay in the game," Calipari said. "Or you accept it and you’re not playing. And we need Kyle in the game. Again, you can sit here and sugar-coat it, but you all watched it. They went at Kyle every possession I had him in the game. Every single possession.
“So now I told him: ‘You don’t think anybody was watching the tape, right? No one watched that game? Don’t you think every team now is going to go right at you? Good luck.’ And I think he can do it, but he’s got to make his mind up that, ‘I’m not settling for this.’"
The problem facing Calipari is he doesn't have the luxury of not relying on Wiltjer.
It's hard for Calipari to bench any of his regulars since he doesn't have much of a bench and only utilizes a seven-man rotation. Furthermore, Wiltjer's outside shooting and skill in the high post makes him critical on offense against a zone, something Kentucky is very likely to see more of in SEC play after Vanderbilt used it to hold the Wildcats without a point for almost eight minutes during a stunning 18-0 second-half blitz.
The dilemma was readily apparent when Calipari reinserted Wiltjer into the game after Vanderbilt had trimmed a 16-point deficit to two with eight minutes to play.
On Vanderbilt's very next possession, it put Wiltjer in a ball screen and Johnson drove right past him for the game-tying layup. Later, Wiltjer redeemed himself at the other end though, catching the ball in the high post and sinking a critical turnaround jumper to put Kentucky ahead for good with 1:56 remaining.
It will be interesting to see how Wiltjer responds to Calipari's postgame challenge.
Wiltjer lacks the physical tools to be an elite defensive player, but his skill set on offense is important enough to Kentucky that he only needs to be competent enough guarding the ball to justify keeping him on the floor.
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