Night Line: A Productive Kyle Wiltjer is Necessary For Kentucky to SucceedPosted by BHayes on January 16th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Youth and inexperience weren’t supposed to matter to John Calipari, to Kentucky. After all, there was still a lot of talent in Lexington, and it felt quite natural when nobody doubted the defending national champions in the preseason. But the two and a half months since have created a college basketball specimen that has been as rare in recent years as a senior superstar – the Kentucky skeptic. Their arrival is understandable, as Kentucky has already dropped five games here in 2012-13, the talented youngsters having yet to find the cohesiveness of UK’s past Calipari teams. There’s still plenty of time to get there, and all four of the key freshmen (Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, and Willie Cauley-Stein) will surely need to display growth for the wins to roll in, but the player who serves as the finest barometer for UK success is not a newcomer. Kyle Wiltjer has been about as consistent as his team this season (i.e., not very), and his off nights have frequently coincided with Kentucky failures. But when Wiltjer has it going like he did Tuesday night against Tennessee, the Cats looked a lot closer to being a complete team.
Wiltjer finished with a team-high 17 points in the 85-75 victory over the Vols, also chipping in with five rebounds and a pair of blocks. Quite a dramatic shift for both sophomore and team from a game ago, when Texas A&M walked into Rupp Arena and knocked off the Cats, holding Wiltjer scoreless in the process. Wiltjer struggling in a UK loss is not a new storyline this year; he is averaging just 5.6 PPG in losses, about half of his season average. He has also only scored seven or fewer points in six of the Cats’ 16 games this season, but four of the five UK losses have also happened to occur on those nights. One final measure of the value of Wiltjer’s involvement: He has gone for 19 and 17 points, respectively, in Kentucky’s sole two victories over top-100 teams (two top-100 wins, yikes!).
It’s clear that a good Kyle Wiltjer has meant a good Kentucky so far this season. The former McDonald’s All-American has displayed a more versatile game than a year ago, but the core of his value is still in his ability to stretch the floor. Three-point shooting is not a significant component of the Kentucky attack (257th nationally in 3PA/FGA), but Wiltjer is one Wildcat efficiently producing from behind the arc. Only Wiltjer and Julius Mays average more than 0.7 makes a game, and Mays is shooting a paltry 30% to get to that number. With the dynamic freshmen trio of Goodwin, Poythress and Noel all battling for operating space in their attacks on the rim, having Wiltjer on the floor and effectively stretching the defense with the three-ball is a must. Even the uber-talented Kentucky teams of 2011 and 2012 had Doron Lamb and Darius Miller capably knocking down the three; with this less-talented iteration taking the floor, having Wiltjer fill that role (and then some, perhaps) obviously becomes important.
Talk of a Kentucky collapse is premature — we aren’t even halfway through January yet, folks! That said, the SEC is down, and the Cats aren’t a lock to make the Tournament field that they are accustomed to at this time, but are we really writing off Calipari and his talented young cast already? Doing so would seem a dubious enterprise, especially if Coach Cal’s sweet-shooting sophomore can conjure up some more performances like tonight.