Here we see a wild Kyle Wiltjer outside of his natural habitat.
It says a lot about the turnover from last year, and the difference between that team and this one, that the only player with experience against Louisville on this year’s team, Kyle Wiltjer, played a grand total of 22 minutes against the Cards in two games last season. Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng: these guys have all spent a lot of time on the court against Cal-coached teams, and have a pretty decent idea of what to expect in the matchup. On our end, though, Kyle’s going to have to do a lot of the work telling guys what the game will be like, how they’re going to pressure, etc. But how is Wiltjer going to help on the court?
In his combined gametime in those high-pressure matchups last year, Wiltjer went 4-7 and scored nine total points. That’s actually not bad at all for fifteen minutes. He was 1-3 from outside, good for 33%, which was well below his average. In a game that looks like it’s going to be decided by who can win the battle when Kentucky sets up the offense in the half court, Wiltjer’s shot-making ability could be the key difference in busting Louisville’s tenacious defense.
We’ve known for a while that Kyle struggles to create his own shot, especially on the perimeter, and his transition moves are limited to trailing on a break and knocking down a three (which looks beautiful every time). But if he’s going to show that he deserves a major role against Louisville, it’s going to be in knocking down threes and scoring down low (which the Cards have historically shown a susceptibility to).
In a game that has every likelihood of getting chippy, free throw shooting is also going to come up clutch. Both Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin shoot 68% from the line; Nerlens Noel is at 53%. If we rely on the charity stripe, which is a possibility, and those guys spend the most time at the line, we could be in for a long evening. If Kyle and his 85% shooting try to get to the line, however, he could really make a huge difference by keeping the Cards from getting any “free” fouls. Look for Wiltjer to try to draw contact on post moves inside; it’s not his forte, but you know Cal has been preaching it to him all week.
Never pegged as Kyle’s strong suit, it seems like his motto on D has always been “don’t be a liability.” Well, against Chane Behanan, that might prove difficult. To stay on the court at all, Wiltjer’s going to have to step up his defensive intensity and rebounding ability against one of the Cards’ more athletic players. No small task. This might be the most important thing Kyle does all day; while he’s better on the scoring end, let up here and he won’t see any more time than he did in last year’s games.
Wiltjer has the ability to absolutely break this game wide open. If he gets hot from outside, he’s going to either draw double-teams on the perimeter, freeing up other scorers on the inside, or abuse shorter defenders and rack up treys. He absolutely needs to coach the team on the court, since he’s the only guy that’s seen what Louisville likes to do, but more than that, he needs to play defense like his life depends on it, and make the shots we know he can make. In a game typically dominated by (Kentucky) freshmen, it might be the old fella, er… sophomore, who makes the biggest statement.