If there was one negative takeaway from Kentucky’s exhibition opener against Georgetown College on Sunday evening, it was freshman forward Kahlil Whitney’s goose egg performance.
In 22 minutes of action, Whitney was the lone Wildcat on the roster without a single basket, finishing with zero points (0-5 shooting), zero rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, and one block in the 80-53 victory.
On Friday, though, the 6-foot-7 freshman out of Chicago, IL completely flipped the script.
In 27 minutes of action, Whitney finished with 15 points (7-13 shooting), five rebounds, three assists, and three blocks, thriving on both ends of the floor.
After the game, Whitney was quick to admit that his confidence from Kentucky’s first exhibition game against Georgetown College to now was night-and-day.
“It was my confidence,” the freshman wing said. “I went to the gym after the first game. The first game I was 0-5, so I had to get back in the gym, get that stroke back. Other than that, just playing hard at all the times, I took a lot of plays off the first game, and I just can’t do that. With my kind of athleticism, I had to keep my foot on the gas at all times [today].”
While he technically went 0-2 from three, Whitney hit multiple shots from the perimeter with his foot on the three-point line. And on just about every attempt, the Wildcat forward shot with zero hesitation, a massive difference from just five days ago.
According to Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus, though, Whitney’s shot isn’t where he’s most valuable to the team. To reach its full potential, the team needs him to be aggressive on the glass and on the defensive end of the floor.
The jumpers are just icing on the cake.
“Well, I think that the thing that stood out the other night was his rebounds in the first game,” Justus said. “Then tonight he comes back and has five rebounds, 15 points. He was involved in the game much more tonight. I think that’s what Cal has really got after him, to be a guy that’s involved on the ball, off the ball, rebounding, deflections, he’s such a live body and he should be a guy that’s a tremendous two-way player and then he makes shots. So that comes as a byproduct of being involved in the game, being a guy who is trying to kind of impose his will both ends of the floor. I think that you can expect that out of Kahlil. Then the jump shots, I think, are an added bonus.”
Whitney believes there is a direct correlation between his all-around play and the minutes he’ll receive this season at Kentucky.
Even when his shots aren’t falling, Whitney wants to make sure he’s making an impact elsewhere in order to earn time on the floor.
“[My all-around game] plays into all the minutes I play on the floor,” he said. “Sometimes my shots are not going to fall so I have to do other things like rebound, deflect plays and just play on the ball.”
According to Whitney, Kentucky head coach John Calipari emphasized aggressiveness and being physical during practice this week.
As a team, the former five-star prospect feels the entire team did just that on Friday evening, a great sign for their chances against Michigan State on Tuesday evening.
“Coach put emphasis on being physical, a lot of box-out drills and bodies banging against each other,” he said. “We have the number one team coming up on Tuesday, they have big guys on that team so we have to be physical. He really wanted us to be physical in every aspect of the game today, both physically and mentally.”
So what does Whitney expect from top-ranked Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday evening?
“I expect everything from that game. It will probably be the biggest game of the year for both of us,” he said. “So we just have to go into that game focused and try to get the job done. Those guys are big like we are. So it’s really going to be who is mentally the strongest, as well as physically. We have to work hard, stay humble and not get big headed going into that game. Like I said they’re the number one team in the country. A final four team, we have to go in and be physical.”
Kentucky tips off against Michigan State at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN on Tuesday.