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February 5, 2013Rock bottom for Kyle Wiltjer was a two-game stretch that started Southeastern Conference play.
Against Vanderbilt, the Kentucky forward was targeted. Attacked and even abused. Coach John Calipari could only play him 14 minutes, the sophomore only scored two points on 1-of-5 shooting and Calipari berated his defensive struggles in a postgame news conference.
And Wiltjer's bounce-back game against Texas A&M two days later wasn't much better. He played 19 minutes but didn't score and only attempted two shots.
It was simple for Wiltjer after that, change or ride the pine.
As Kentucky prepares to host South Carolina Tuesday night, Wiltjer has emerged as one of the Cats' top scorers, especially in the post.
"Kyle Wiltjer changed his mental attitude toward practice; he loves walking in," Calipari said. "He's changed how he approached practice, his habits in practice, and it's changed him."
Calipari is hoping Wiltjer's change can rub off on other Cats.
"Now they've all seen (Wiltjer change), but here's what it is: really hard," Calipari said.
But Wiltjer is making it look easy.
Since the first meeting with the Aggies, Wiltjer has been on a tear, averaging 15.3 points per game, including a career-high 26 in UK's upset with at then-No. 16 Ole Miss.
Wiltjer said one of the keys in turning his game around was remembering to stay positive, which can be challenging with all the attention - some of it negative - that UK basketball endures throughout the season.
"I think we've just been staying positive and just getting better every day," Wiltjer said. "I think that's been the key: just focusing on listening to what Coach Cal has to say and then just trying to build on it during the games."
One of Wiltjer's few mistakes since "changing," came in a rematch against Texas A&M last Saturday. UK had the lead with less than 30 seconds to play and was inbounding the ball. Wiltjer caught along the sideline and was trapped.
Wiltjer screamed for a timeout but the official called a jump ball.
The Aggies were rewarded the ball and scored, forcing overtime.
"There were some key turnovers that I made, which was really disappointing," Wiltjer said.
The old Wiltjer might have let that mistake impact him in overtime. Not the new one. Wiltjer recorded two rebounds, a block and two points in the extra time, helping UK close out Texas A&M.
"I was disappointed in myself (for the turnover), but it was put behind me so I just had to keep being positive and help my team win," Wiltjer said.
This UK team has struggled with consistency all season, but one thing UK has been able to rely on is the steady play of Julius Mays.
Being the lone starting senior on a team full of freshmen means the players look up to Mays, and lately he hasn't disappointed.
The Cats never trailed against the Aggies on Saturday, but that didn't stop Texas A&M from forcing overtime. And when it seemed like the Cats could fall apart in the extra time, Mays held the team together.
He scored seven points in overtime and finished with a season high 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting, 4-of-6 from behind the arc and 5-of-6 from the free throw line.
Calipari isn't ready to call Mays the leader on this team, but that doesn't mean he isn't impressed with his play.
"I don't know (about) leading but I'll tell you what he's doing, he's playing like I said, instead of just trying to be a jump shooter now you're playing basketball," Calipari said.
After Elston Turner torched the Cats for 40 in the teams' first meeting, Archie Goodwin appeared to be the guy who would guard Turner last Saturday. And while Goodwin started the game on Turner, Mays finished it.
Turner was able to rattle off 21 points but shot just 30 percent from the floor, and only hit one three-pointer, compared to six in the first meeting.
"You went out and guarded people, which means he can do it every game he plays, then just go out there and be that guy," Calipari said.
Alex Poythress said he can count on Mays to always remain calm and collected, despite the situation.
"He's always that guy that's going to stay poised at all times," Poythress said. "He's been in this situation before, so he's not going to panic or anything. If you need advice, you can go up to him and ask him."
Scrappy South Carolina
The Wildcats didn't seem to know much about South Carolina - players meet with reporters prior to the scouting report - but they insisted they won't look past the Gamecocks.
First-year head coach Frank Martin might not have the record he wants after 21 games, but Calipari expects them to be as physical as any team he's faced.
"They'll do what every other team's doing," Calipari said. "'Get up in their body, be physical. You bump this guy, he'll turn his back. You try to deny him the ball, he won't work to get open.'
"We're working on it and talking about it, and I think our guys see it."
The Cats torched the Gamecocks last season in two meetings but Wiltjer isn't looking at the past.
"We know they're very scrappy, physical," Wiltjer said. "They've got some big guys down there and some small guards. So we have to be ready to play, because every team in the SEC's gonna be tough."