Wiltjer gets a chance to play and improve

No time was wasted getting Kyle Wiltjer into the game.

Not after he played only three minutes against Kansas. Head coach John Calipari said Wiltjer needed to play more immediately after that game, then said it again on a teleconference Thursday, and again on SportsCenter Friday, and again on the Scott Van Pelt Radio Show hours later Friday.

So it wasn’t a surprise that Wiltjer was subbed into the game within five minutes against Penn State.

“I made a commitment that we would get him in early,” Calipari said, according to a press release.

At that time, the game was actually still a game, before UK streaked to a 45-15 lead at halftime (at which Doron Lamb was outscoring the Nittany Lions by two) and a final score of 85-47.

Wiltjer was part of the smothering. He scored eight points in the first eight minutes of the game. He finished with 19 points in 26 minutes.

Wiltjer displayed his array of moves and his versatility to score from multiple spots on the floor. He’s skilled enough to get shots off in the post, and he’s comfortable facing the basket from the top of the key and driving or playing a pick-and-roll game. He’s a deft passer, as well.

His offense is not the reason he only played three minutes against Kansas. It’s his work on the defensive end.

He’s not strong enough to challenge players in the post and doesn’t hit the defensive glass as hard as he needs to. Wiltjer can make up for his lack of toughness on the offensive end with touch and craftiness. He can’t do the same on defense.

“I told him, there is no option,” Calipari said. “You either rebound or I’m not playing that much.”

The Penn State game provided the perfect opportunity for Wiltjer to get valuable minutes. He checked into the game when it still mattered, allowing him to play serious basketball with four other starters. He continued playing when the bench was cleared out, joining Jarrod Polson, Sam Malone, Brian Long and Eloy Vargas on the floor for the final minutes.

Wiltjer didn’t always play flawlessly. In one string of possessions, Wiltjer missed twice and then got called for an offensive foul. Calipari immediately sent him back to the bench.

“There were plays today when he did (what he needed) and some when he didn’t,” Calipari said.

For the most part, though, Wiltjer gained the experience UK needed him to get.

Because when games matter, like the one against Kansas, he needs to play more than three minutes. This team needs to play more than a six-man rotation, mostly because — unlike last year — it has more than six men to play. Developing Wiltjer into a dependable seventh man who can play serious minutes in serious environments is crucial to UK’s long-term chances.

“We can’t go into the SEC exchanging baskets because you’re not guarding,” Calipari said.

Not just for desperation times, when players are in foul trouble or fatigued. Wiltjer can, and will, be more than just a spotholder who tries to tread water when he’s in the game.

He can get all the practice he wants against Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis, and that will certainly help.

“If you can do it against those two, you can do it against anybody in the country,” Calipari said.

But so will 26 minutes and 19 points against Penn State.

UK will need Wiltjer by the end. Now’s a good time to start.

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