One of the toughest acts to follow in sports is to replace a prior champion. When a team wins at the highest level, the following season's squad is under extremely high expectations as fan excitement is higher than ever and preseason hype bursts through the rafters.
This is especially true at the University of Kentucky, where the incoming 2012-13 team will defend their 2012 NCAA title earned last season. Led by a six man group of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb, Kentucky achieved college basketball's highest honor and brought home the national championship trophy to the Bluegrass state once again.
A forgotten yet important member of that championship roster is incoming sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. The former five-star recruit committed to Kentucky and had a reputation as a sharp-shooting power forward who could space the floor. Wiltjer also showcased an entertaining old-school post game complete with an effective hook shot.
Even though Kyle was part of the famed 2011 recruiting class that featured himself, Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Teague, he did not garner nearly as much playing time or accolades as the other freshmen. This is because he does not have the type of athleticism that NBA scouts are looking for.
However, if Wiltjer can improve his quickness, agility and explosion during the offseason in order to increase his effectiveness on the court, he is likely to be the wild card to the success of this season's Wildcat team.
The roster is stacked everywhere except at the power forward position. Standing 6'9" and weighing over 230 pounds, Wiltjer has the frame to play down low with the big boys. Granted, he does lack in strength and is more of a finesse player. But he will be expected to play next to Nerlens Noel on the block next season, so his increased athleticism and growth will surely benefit his game and the Cats' win totals.
Kyle's greatest strength is his three-point shooting. He possesses a sweet stroke and converted on over 43 percent of his long-range shot attempts as a freshman. This is extremely impressive as it means Wiltjer literally shot half of his field goal attempts from the three-point line.
His percentage is expected to rise next year as he takes on a more prominent role with the team. It will be important for him to knock down those shots because Kentucky does lack perimeter shooters on the roster.
Outside of guard Julius Mays, no other player is expected to be a legitimate deep threat; therefore, it is imperative that Wiltjer keeps defenses honest with his outside shooting in order to properly space the floor for his teammates.
With his perimeter shot falling, Kyle is dangerous when driving to the rim. He is not the explosive athlete that his teammates are, but he is surprisingly adept at getting to the rim and getting off a high quality shot, either by using his patented hook or pulling up for a short jump shot.
If his opponents decide to foul him on the way to the rim, then it is at their detriment. Wiltjer shot over 81 percent from the free throw line and will likely raise that conversion rate next season. It is this sort of all-around offensive arsenal that can turn Kyle into a star on offense. Whether it comes from a long-range shot, an effective hook shot or converting from the charity stripe, he will pour in points next season for the Cats.
In fact, Kyle Wiltjer reminds many fans of a young Scott Padgett or Jeff Sheppard. Both players were tall and not very athletic, but they could drain shots from all over the court in a multitude of ways. If Wiltjer can reach the heights that those two Lexington legends did, then the fans will adore him and the team will be winning plenty of games.
He has plenty of work to do on defense, but Kyle should be an offensive star and a team leader for Calipari's fourth team in Lexington. His five-star talent and offensive versatility will likely be the difference between an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen and a return trip to the Final Four. Kyle Wiltjer is the key to Kentucky's success for the upcoming basketball season.