With their backs against the wall and their National Player of the Year candidate on the bench with foul trouble, the Wildcats found an unlikely hero in the form of freshman Kyle Wiltjer Saturday against Ole Miss.
Wiltjer, who had spent the better part of the season as somewhat of a novelty on the roster because of his unique, yet superfluous skill-set, was propelled into the spotlight Saturday after Anthony Davis was relegated to the bench midway through the first half due to foul trouble.
Kentucky coach John Calipari was faced with an abrupt quandary when Davis picked up his second foul of the first half.
Should he stick with Davis and hope that he avoids picking up a third foul, or turn to the bench and hope that they can weather a 10-minute storm from a desperate SEC foe?
The impervious Cats had seemingly met their Kryptonite. Without Davis, the team that had dominated the SEC suddenly appeared legitimately vulnerable.
The Ole Miss Rebels, who had just suffered a massacre days earlier at the hands of Vanderbilt, no longer seemed intimidated by the Davis-less Cats. The momentum of the game had shifted, the demeanor of the Ole Miss players had transformed and suddenly the overmatched Rebels were making a run.
In a moment of crisis, Calipari called on No. 33, and the freshman from Portland responded by not only quelling a brief run by Ole Miss, but giving the Wildcats an eight-point lead at the break.
Wiltjer was lavished with praise after the game by his coach.
“Kyle [Wiltjer] played great today. He was outstanding,” said Calipari. “And the reason we had a lead at halftime was because of Kyle Wiltjer, in the middle of the zone, he made shots, he defended well. He took a charge.”
For the first time, perhaps all season, Wiltjer looked like a complete player.
He provided a threat offensively, but also did the little things defensively to allow him to stay in the game. He took a charge, hustled for loose balls and played aggressively on defense without getting caught out of position.
He logged 19 minutes in total, his most since December 22 against Loyola (MD). In contrast, senior big man Eloy Vargas—Wiltjer’s main competition for playing time—registered only two minutes in the contest, both of which came after the game had long been decided.
Yet, Wiltjer’s increase in minutes should not be viewed as a single-game aberration. He has actually recorded double digit minutes in six straight contests after recording only one 10-plus minute outing in his previous six performances.
Over these past six games, he has also averaged over 42 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown. Wiltjer currently stands second on the team in three-point percentage at 38.1, behind only Doron Lamb.
He may not be Anthony Davis, but he poses plenty of problems for opposing defenses, especially now that his confidence is beginning to pique. His shooting proficiency spreads defenses and makes it difficult to collapse on any single player.
Wiltjer’s ability to score points in bunches has not only earned him spot minutes, but a consistent spot in the rotation.
“We really probably have seven starters,” said Calipari after the game. “[Wiltjer] plays different. He definitely stretches the defense. He's pretty good. So you know, it gave Kyle a chance to step up and play and he played well.”
If Kentucky is to make a run to New Orleans in early April as many expect, rest assured that Wiltjer’s scoring prowess will be needed somewhere along the line, just as it was against Ole Miss on Saturday.
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