Kyle Wiltjer explores transfer from Kentucky basketball team

jtipton@herald-leader.comJune 24, 2013 

Kyle Wiltjer, who came to Kentucky billed as an old-school player who shot an old-school hook, is looking for a new school.

Wiltjer will search elsewhere for "a more prominent role," UK Coach John Calipari announced Monday afternoon. It came as a bit of a surprise, but not too big of a surprise considering the looming possibility of a career reserve role given an incoming freshman class that includes six McDonald's All-Americans and the likelihood of a similarly bountiful recruiting haul the following year.

Wiltjer's "Letter to BBN" released by Kentucky sounded an I've-done-all-I-can-do-here tone.

"Heading into college, my dream was to win a national championship and compete with and play against the best players in the country," he said in the letter. "Without a doubt, I accomplished both of these goals in my two years at Kentucky. Now as I head into my junior year, I recognize that my new and adjusted goals require me to make some very difficult upcoming decisions."

Wiltjer said he wanted to find a program that would help him improve his strength and conditioning, which he hoped would translate into a "more significant role, wherever that may be."

Attention immediately focused on Gonzaga, one of the schools on Wiltjer's list coming out of Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore.

Besides returning Wiltjer to the northwest, Gongaza offers several other reasons to be a logical destination:

■ Gonzaga has an immediate history of transforming a role player into a productive team leader. Kelly Olynyk, approximately the same size as Wiltjer at 7-foot and 238 pounds, averaged less than six points and four rebounds in his first two seasons for Gonzaga. After redshirting his third year, he became a star. He averaged 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds this past season and entered the 2013 NBA Draft.

■ Gonzaga apparently has been looking for a forward with size. The Bulldogs were linked to two other players earlier this off-season. They missed on Josh Davis, who transferred from Tulane to San Diego State, and Mike Moser, who moved from UNLV to Oregon.

■ Wiltjer's father, Greg, attended North Idaho College, which is a 30-minute drive from Gonzaga's Spokane, Wash., campus.

Wiltjer, who averaged 6.9 points in his two UK seasons, expressed gratitude for Calipari's support in the decision to seek a new college basketball home. Calipari will help and advise Wiltjer in the possible transfer, coach and player said.

"I cannot stress enough how supportive Coach (Calipari) has been during this period," he said in the letter, which was released on the coach's website. "He is more than a coach to me, and for that I am forever grateful."

Wiltjer gave himself wiggle room. He did not rule out a return to UK. He stopped short of declarative sentences in talking about the transfer.

"Even though I might physically leave Lexington, I will never forget the support and kindness that everyone has shown my family and me," he said in the letter. "It is difficult to put into words how hard it is to possibly leave BBN, yet I am confident that whatever I choose, I will give it my all. Regardless, I will always bleed blue and will never forget these amazing last two years at Kentucky."

In a separate statement on his website, Calipari sounded ambivalent.

"Kyle's choice to explore options at another school disappoints me, but it's his decision at the end of the day, and I fully support his decision," he said in the statement. "I would love for him to go through this process and return to us, but I will support him and help him in any way I can. He's a terrific young man, a great student, a tremendous basketball player and an excellent teammate. If he does choose to go somewhere else, that school will be very lucky."

Arguably, the high point in Wiltjer's two UK seasons came as a freshman against Penn State in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. With several Hall of Famers watching from courtside seats in the Mohegan Sun Arena, he scored 19 points and more than once made hook shots. Former UK All-American Cliff Hagan, whose signature shot was the hook, nodded approval.

Wiltjer's nadir came this past season at Vanderbilt. The Commodores spoke candidly of targeting Wiltjer, whose lack of footspeed made him a possible liability on defense. Calipari used his post-game news conference to issue a get-better-or-get-lost ultimatum.

If Wiltjer leaves, he will become part of a stampede of transfers. On a Southeastern Conference teleconference earlier Monday, Alabama Coach Anthony Grant lamented the "alarming trend" of transfers, by his count 450 in the last two years.

But Calipari sounded philosophical. He all but asked UK fans to wish Wiltjer well.

"Transfers are a part of our game," Calipari said in his website posting. "My philosophy has always been to support the kid in whatever way I can and make sure he can still pursue his dreams. ... Anytime a player doesn't feel like he can achieve those dreams with us, I feel like we've failed him, not that he's failed us."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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