Confidence fuels Cats sixth man

Published 11:06 am Thursday, March 14, 2024

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Kentucky coach John Calipari believes that freshman guard Rob Dillingham has a “worldly self-confidence” that helps make him a special player.

“He is another one that is living in the gym,” the Kentucky coach said. “Even if he is playing and not making shots, he is mad at himself but he doesn’t stop playing. He is alway going to play.

“I take him out because he gets foul, and then I put him back in, and he heats up. He lets me coach and he plays. If you are an amateur you cop an attitude and have body language and go (back) in (the game) and if you do not play well who do you blame — the coach. He is being professional and just playing while I coach.”

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Dillingham has shown in spurts that he can be instant offense and score in a variety of ways that has endeared him to UK fans and elevated Kentucky into the national championship contender conversation.

“Rob is a special talent. He just has a knack for scoring,” UK assistant coach Chin Coleman said. “He has a self belief that is out of this world and has the ability to do special things because he believes in himself.”

Coleman remembers recruiting Dillingham and watching a game where he was not making shots.

“It never impacted him. He never got down,” Coleman said. “He just continued to be even keeled. You knew if he could handle that moment and come back and make plays, then you knew it was in him to be great at the next level. He showed us that in the recruitment process.

“He and Cal have a good understanding. Cal gives him that one bleep (crazy mistake). He is not giving him two, three, four. But he’s good with one and just lets him keep playing.”

Dillingham became even more valuable to Kentucky when he developed a relationship with Zvonimir Ivisic that has enabled him to create lob opportunities for the 7-2 Croatian.

“If he is choosing to play that way, he’s as good as there is in the country. He really is. Sometimes he’s not choosing to pass it and I’m going to try to score this,” Calipari said. “What he’s doing by us letting him go a little bit, it’s demoralizing if you are on that other side.

“I told him the greatest thing about him, if I take you out, you don’t have to say anything. The whole building is mad at me. So you are fine.”

Calipari gets a bit miffed at times when Dillingham gets in quick foul trouble, as he did on Saturday in Tennessee when he picked up two fouls in two minutes. Calipari kept him on the bench the final 14 minutes of the first half but he scored nine points in 14 minutes of play in the second half to help UK get the 85-81 win.

“I don’t play guys with two fouls in the first half. Fourteen minutes to go in the first half Robert has two fouls. Now, you kind of see why,” Calipari said. “(Dillingham) stretched the game out (in the second half). He made the plays that got us up double digits.

And he doesn’t have to play thinking (about a third foul). No, he’s fine. He’s got two fouls. He can play basketball now. And I told him, ‘If you don’t want that to happen, don’t foul. Don’t reach in. Don’t get underneath a guy when he comes down on a shot. And you’ll stay in.'”

Dillingham is averaging 15 points per game — second best on the team — going into the SEC Tournament. He’s shooting 48.2 percent overall, 44.5 percent from 3 and 77.8 percent at the foul line. He’s also second on the team with 58 assists and 33 steals.

“Playing with him is amazing, he makes the game a lot easier for all of us, just all of the great things he can do. He can score, he can pass, he can do anything,” freshman teammate D.J. Wagner said. “It’s fun as well just to be able to be out there when you see him do all the great things he does.” 

Freshman sensation Reed Sheppard considers Dillingham an “unbelievable player” like others on the team are.

“You know anyone you pass to can pass, dribble and shoot, so it’s really fun being able to play with people like that and you can trust them to go hit a bucket,” Sheppard said. “A guy like Rob can make you look good even if you just pass it to him because he can almost always create something that helps the team.”