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Kyle Wiltjer emerges in Kentucky rout

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Kentucky has a chance to be a much more varied team on offense in John Calipari’s third season in Lexington for one reason.

Kyle Wiltjer.

The last time a Cal-coached team had a player like the 6-foot-9 freshman forward was when Calipari was with the New Jersey Nets in the late 1990s.

“That’s when I had Keith Van Horn,’’ Calipari said after Kentucky crushed Penn State 85-47 in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off semifinals Saturday at the Mohegan Sun Arena. “I had Keith Van Horn, who could score like him. He struggled to guard, though, at the 4 and that’s why I had to play him at the 3.’’

Let’s not mistake Wiltjer for Van Horn quite yet. He’s got a long, long way to go to be even in the same breath of one of the greatest players to ever compete for Utah and an eventual No. 2 draft pick. But Wiltjer has a similar skill set, something that Kentucky hasn’t had in a player during Calipari’s tenure. He can score facing the basket, he can post up and he can put the ball on the floor and drive.

Wiltjer complemented Doron Lamb’s 26 points with 19 off the bench in 28 minutes, scoring 12 of his points in the first half. He made six of his 12 field goal attempts, converted two 3s and was 5-of-6 on free throws. He also showed he can dish the ball within the dribble-drive offense with three assists and only one turnover.

“He’s a great player for our team,’’ Lamb said. “He can pick and pop and help us go far in the tournament.’’

Wiltjer’s minutes were limited to 19 in the opener against Marist. But he was effective, scoring 14 points. He was held to just three minutes against Kansas on Tuesday in the Champions Classic because Calipari didn’t want to put Wiltjer on the floor if he wasn’t going to be able to guard or defend against the rugged Jayhawks. Calipari has Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis and even Eloy Vargas if he needs strong men. (Yes, even the slender Davis can be a strength when need be because of his imposing shot-blocking ability.)

“He can score, he can make hook shots and he’s a player I want to play, but he’s got to be committed to coming up with the ball and defending,’’ Calipari said. “He doesn’t have to be a stopper. Today, he took a charge. That’s perfect.’’

Wiltjer’s father, Greg, was in attendance Saturday. He has no issues with the management of his son. He fully expects the progression to be a process.

“Big guys mature at different levels and he’s exactly where he wants to be,’’ Greg Wiltjer said. “He’s doing fine in practice. He’s like a fine wine -- it will just take time. We’re focusing on the end production and he’s got a good attitude, he works hard and he’s got a good skill set. He’s very confident.’’

Kyle Wiltjer, who grew up in Portland, Ore., knows what he can bring to the second-ranked Wildcats.

“I feel like I can stretch out the defense and get shots in our offense,’’ he said. “The dribble-drive can help a versatile player. I can add a unique touch to the game. I just have to do what I’m doing and play hard.’’

Wiltjer said he has already improved by playing against the current players on the stacked roster, as well as NBA players who are locked out.

“I’m playing against the best every day,’’ Wiltjer said. “That’s why I chose [Kentucky]. That’s why I’m here.’’

If Wiltjer, who is only going to get stronger as he develops, can find a way to stay on the floor by competing on the defensive end and grabbing more than the two rebounds he had Saturday, he can be a valuable asset to UK.

The Cats have the ability to push the ball with Marquis Teague or Lamb. They can power their way to the basket with Jones or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The ball can go in the post to Davis. But Wiltjer can be a player who can cause a defense fits because he can score inside or out, as well as put the ball down and go.

Kentucky’s versatility continues to be on display early in the season. And each game, a new option seems to emerge.

On Saturday, it was Kyle Wiltjer's turn.