There aren’t many sophomores in the country looked to as the wily veterans of their teams.
UK sophomore Kyle Wiltjer is one of the few.
As a freshman, Wiltjer was the seventh man in a six-man heavy rotation. He averaged 11.6 minutes per game, but each of the six players in front of him averaged at least 26 minutes per game.
Following Wiltjer’s freshman season and UK’s eighth national championship, all six of those players moved on to the NBA.
Now faced with questions about the difficulty of repeating, almost everyone around the UK program notes head coach John Calipari has an entirely new team.
Entirely new, except for Wiltjer.
Kyle Wiltjer. (Photo by Jon Hale)
“It’s a good feeling just coming in here with experience and knowing what to expect,” Wiltjer said in a preseason interview with KyForward. “Just want to use that to better our team.”
Wiltjer was ranked as the No. 7 power forward and No. 22 player overall in the class of 2011 by Rivals.com out of high school. He arrived at UK with a reputation for a sweet hook shot and impressive outside shooting ability.
Wiltjer showed glimpses of that prowess — like when he led UK in scoring with 24 points against Loyola in December — but he frequently took a back seat to his three classmates that would be NBA first-round picks following the season and the three returning contributors from UK’s 2011 Final Four team.
Wiltjer averaged just less than six minutes per game in the NCAA tournament, but he’s the only returning Wildcat who saw any action in either of the 2012 Final Four games.
While Wiltjer may at some point be able to let his new teammates know what to expect from that experience, his current message to them about what it feels like to play in a Final Four is simple.
“Just keep working hard and not worry about that yet,” he said. “That’s the main thing: just take it one game at a time. We have a long way to go before we can even be a contender.”
Where Wiltjer fits into the 2012-13 Wildcats is, like the rest of the team, a work in progress.
He will undoubtedly average more than the 11.6 minutes per game he averaged as a freshman. He is one of the most obvious candidates to lead the Wildcats in scoring.
Calipari wants to play fast this season, and he has a role for Wiltjer in that type of offense.
“He’ll be behind the ball all the time,” Calipari said in a preseason roundtable interview with local media. “If he doesn’t rebound it, he’ll still be out ahead and he’ll be fine and we still may trail him into a dragging screen.
“What I like is, we fly, and as the ball comes back, it’s coming back to his hands…I’m not trying to compare him to somebody, but later in his career that’s what they did with (Larry) Bird.”
At 6-foot-10, Wiltjer could start at the traditional power forward spot next to 6-foot-10 freshman Nerlens Noel. At times, he could see action on the court with the Noel and 7-foot freshman Willie Cauley-Stein.
Wherever he plays, Wiltjer is ready for a bigger role.
“I’m willing to take any role that Coach Cal wants me to do to help our team win,” he said. “Whatever that is, I’ll try to do.”
One of those roles may include more leadership responsibilities because of his experience.
One of his freshmen teammates as already noticed Wiltjer leading by example.
“He just does what he does,” said freshman guard Archie Goodwin. “If he needs to say something, he will say it. He’s more of a quiet guy.”
Wiltjer said he has worked during the offseason to improve his strength, quickness, shooting and post ability.
His teammates have noticed a difference.
“Kyle has been real good, definitely one of the leaders on this team,” Noel said. “He just really shows himself through his work ethic and his experience of being here before. You can tell he’s a real special player.”
“When I first came here, watching him because he got a little bit of time, I didn’t realize how he scores at will,” Cauley-Stein said. “When we played pickup, you couldn’t stop him. It was just crazy how good he is at offense.”
Part of Wiltjer’s offseason improvement came while working with the Canadian national team, led by Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash.
Nash gave Wiltjer some valuable advice during the training camp.
“Just keep working on being low, working on my leg strength,” Wiltjer said. “That’s key because he said I’ve got the skills, I just need to work on my body. That’s what I’m going to do.”
As one of the few links between the 2012 national championship team and the current Wildcats, and improved Wiltjer could be key to helping this team approach last season’s success.
He’s trying to stay away from placing that pressure on he and his teammates though.
“Just like last year, we’re in the beginning of the year and we’ve got a lot of potential, but we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “Until we do that work, we’re not going to be contenders yet. We definitely have the potential to be.”
In the two weeks before Big Blue Madness, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be previewing the 2012-13 UK men’s basketball series with a profile of each of the 12 Wildcats as well as other features to get you ready for the team’s attempt to repeat as National Champions. Previous profiles in the series have focused on Willie Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Ryan Harrow, Brian Long and Sam Malone. On the KyForward UK Sports Tumblr you can read more from the one-on-one interview with Kyle Wiltjer. Tomorrow’s profile looks at Jon Hood.