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January 19, 2013If freshman Willie Cauley-Stein is out with an injury, the Wildcats lose much more than just a big body.
Kentucky - which plays at Auburn Saturday at 9 p.m. - loses 7.6 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game and nearly two blocks if Cauley-Stein misses time after a minor procedure on his knee Thursday.
But more importantly the Cats are losing a player that can body up with opposing bigs, someone that isn't afraid to bang.
While other players will help, John Calipari will look for Kyle Wiltjer to help fill that void.
Aggressive, physical and strong aren't generally words to describe Wiltjer, but they'll need to be now that Cauley-Stein is out.
Even before Cauley-Stein went out with injury, Calipari had seen changes with Wiltjer.
"Right now, he's the most vocal player we have," Calipari said. "When you do that, you build your own self-esteem and self-confidence. The other side of it is you've got to carry over what you're doing here to a game."
It seems some of Wiltjer's changes in practice have transitioned to the court.
Against Tennessee on Tuesday, Wiltjer had one of his better all-around performances. He was knocking down three-pointers like UK fans are used to, but he surprised everyone by banging in the paint, drawing fouls and recording five rebounds.
He finished with 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
But now Wiltjer won't have the luxury of having an extra big body in the rotation. Wiltjer will be forced to guard bigger, more physical players in Cauley-Stein's absence.
Wiltjer said he'll need to work on his rebounding and defense specifically, but touch on all areas of his game.
"I'm definitely going to have to step up," Wiltjer said. "A lot of guys have to step up because (losing Cauley-Stein) hurts our team but we're ready for the challenge."
The sophomore said that if a player was going to go down, it's better to have it happen now when he's playing well.
"Loss of any player hurts but I definitely have some confidence and I want to have that mentality," Wiltjer said.
Back to Earth
A game after a superhuman 40-point performance, Texas A&M's Elston Turner looked like a mere mortal Thursday night against Florida, scoring four points on 1-for-10 shooting.
That came on the heels of a 14-of-19 shooting performance at Rupp Arena last Saturday. Turner hit 6-of-10 three-pointers against the Wildcats. He was 0-for-4 against the Gators.
"I didn't watch the game, but I saw it on my phone that he only had four points, and I was like 'Of course,'" UK guard Ryan Harrow said.
Turner's Jekyll-and-Hyde performance could serve as a refresher for the Wildcats of a point Calipari's often making: that Kentucky is, Calipari says, "everybody's Super Bowl."
Case in point: Auburn Arena is sold out for Saturday night's game. The Tigers haven't had a sellout yet this season.
"That's every game," Harrow said.
Calipari said he tries to each his players to embrace the target on their backs.
"You play at Kentucky. Isn't it great that everywhere you go, it's sold out?" Calipari said when asked what he tells his team to counter opponents' motivation. "You're the biggest game on everybody's schedule; take great pride in that. That's why you came here. Let's prepare."
The Cats will battle in the state of Alabama the next two games.
But UK has decided to travel back to Lexington after its game at Auburn Saturday night, and will fly to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for next Tuesday's game against the Crimson Tide.
Wiltjer doesn't think late nights and constant travel will have a negative impact on the team.
"Not much," Wiltjer said. "That's the joy of having a plane, we can get back fast and get back in the gym the next day and prepare for the opponent. Regardless, we're going to prepare for (Alabama) like we would any other game."
UK had better get used to life on the road. Four of its next five games - and six of its next nine - are away from home.
UK is 2-3 away from Rupp Arena this season. Its most recent win came at Vanderbilt, the Cats' first true road win this season. The Wildcats built a big lead in the second half only to see Vanderbilt rally to take the lead with an 18-0 run before Kentucky battled back to win.
"It was kind of disappointing how it ended, because we were playing so good at the beginning and at the beginning of the second half as well," Harrow said. "If we could play like that at the beginning of this game and just do it for 40 minutes, that'd be much better."