Former Kentucky player Kyle Wiltjer decided to leave the program at the conclusion of last season. The former Oregon high school stand out decided to commit to the Wildcats without ever visiting the campus. He became the spark off of the bench for the 2012 national title team, showing off his marksmanship from three point range. With a new year, a new set of expectations were placed on the sophomore’s shoulders.
To say 2013 was a sophomore slump may be a bit of an understatement. Wiltjer seemed to have it a lot easier when he was surrounded by the overwhelming talent overflowing from the 2012 roster. When 2013 came around, he was expected to step in right away and become a starter. The flaws were evident, his body needed to change. He lacked the strength to compete on defense and power through contact on offense. His best weapon was the three point shot, but he was now expected to add more to his arsenal instead of being a one-hit wonder.
There were early rumors that the coaching staff was not happy with the lack of progress Wiltjer was showing. He came back to campus pretty much the same player. He didn’t appear stronger, quicker or improved at all. For those of you that didn’t hear those rumors, you saw the evidence in the first few games. Not only was Kyle Wiltjer still a liability on defense, the pressures associated with starting played with his mental process. Even his most coveted weapon, the three pointer, was a mere shadow of his former self.
I’ll fast forward through the rest of the regular season, because I really don’t want to live through that again. The opening round of the NIT welcomed the ‘Cats to a tiny gymnasium in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. The venue was a far cry from the Super Dome they played their 2012 national title game in, and the welcome wagon was non-existent. The Colonials shot the lights out and proved to be a very viable opponent, especially on their home floor. The Wildcats had a chance to escape with a win they didn’t deserve, and head coach John Calipari drew up a play for Kyle Wiltjer. The ball was placed in Wiltjer’s hands for a catch-and-shoot situation as the final buzzer was nearing. Wiltjer flicked the ball towards the goal and watched it bounce off the back iron.
After that missed three pointer failed to save Kentucky’s dreadful season, the rumors instantly flew of Wiltjer suggesting a transfer to Gonzaga. He took to his Twitter account to calm the Big Blue Nation and say he was there to stay. Months later, he packed up his bags for Spokane, Washington and left his days at Kentucky in the rear-view mirror.
Some will say he was never going to put in the kind of work necessary to become a factor. Others will say he mentally could not handle the rigors of college basketball at Kentucky. John Calipari’s mantra of “This isn’t for everybody” could have held true. Nobody truly knows the real reason except Wiltjer. I understand the large influx of talent would have him fighting to stay off the bench, but I’m surprised he wasn’t willing to stick with the program he committed to while never even taking an official visit.
Seeing him in the jersey above brings me hope that he has found a new niche of college basketball he can thrive in. He will no longer be exposed and picked apart under the bright lights of Kentucky. The ‘Zags come with their own set of winning expectations and tradition. I still can’t help but think, why? I really can’t see NBA scouts wanting him more if he plays 30+ minutes at Gonzaga versus 12 minutes at Kentucky. He was literally a summer workout program away from being an impact player. I wish him all the best, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bitter.