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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Former Zag, Wildcat forward Kyle Wiltjer big fan of Gonzaga-Kentucky series

Nov. 19, 2022 Updated Sat., Nov. 19, 2022 at 9:18 p.m.

Kyle Wiltjer has a national championship ring from his two seasons at Kentucky and a pair of AP All-America honors from his two seasons at Gonzaga.

He played for Kentucky’s John Calipari and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, coaches almost certainly bound for the Hall of Fame. He follows both programs closely from afar, which these days is his first season in China with the Zhejiang Guangsha Lions.

When news broke of the Zags and Wildcats agreeing to a two-game series – later extended to six games over the next six seasons – Wiltjer was beyond thrilled for a long-overdue clash of his alma maters. The first meeting takes place Sunday at the Arena.

“I think I was playing in Spain and because of the time difference I woke up one morning and had a bunch of Twitter notifications,” Wiltjer said earlier this week. “So I kept reading and I couldn’t believe it. It’s what the people have wanted for a long time – two historic programs going at it.”

The 6-foot-10 sharpshooter took to Twitter and lobbied ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla for a spot as a guest announcer on the television broadcast. Wiltjer also tweeted that he was in search of a KENTZAGA jersey.

“I was trying to politic, I’m pretty close with Fran,” Wiltjer said. “But unless something happens (between Thursday and Sunday), I’ve been so focused on the move (to China) and the season that I never did any follow up.”

Wiltjer offers a unique perspective on both coaches and programs from his collegiate playing days. He was a reserve on the 2012 team led by Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrest that captured Kentucky’s eighth national title.

That gave Wiltjer four titles in a row. Before joining the Wildcats, he helped Portland’s Jesuit High to three straight Oregon 6A championships.

“What really tipped the scale at that point, I just wanted to make the NBA and every year they have five to eight guys go to the NBA,” Wiltjer said of the recruiting process.

Reinforcing Wiltjer’s point, six Wildcats were selected in the 2012 NBA draft, including four in the first round. Davis and Kidd-Gilchrest went 1-2.

Wiltjer assumed a bigger role in his sophomore year. He made 10 starts while averaging 24 minutes, 10.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and hitting nearly 37% on 3-pointers, but the Wildcats struggled and eventually lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.

“It was super tough (to transfer) because I built so many friendships and the basketball was tough, too,” he said. “Going to Gonzaga was the best thing for me at the time. People kind of knew who I was, but I still had to make a name for myself.”

Which is what he did with the Zags. In two seasons, he averaged 18.6 points, 6.3 boards and nailed nearly 45% of his 3-point attempts. He went on to make Houston’s roster as an undrafted rookie and played in 14 NBA games before stints in Greece, Spain, Turkey and China.

“Everything happens for a reason and I kind of had the best of both worlds,” said Wiltjer, who was AP third-team All-American in 2015 and honorable mention the following season. “Kentucky was a super competitive environment. You’re around all the NBA guys and it really made me believe I could make the NBA. At Gonzaga, the skill development really helped my game, the redshirt program (sitting out one year under NCAA transfer rules) really helped me. The combination of both experiences helped me make the Rockets.”

Wiltjer said Few and Calipari are similar in that they’re both “straight shooters,” but they’ve built dominant programs with their own philosophies.

“They run two different offenses, but they’re some of the best basketball minds in college basketball,” Wiltjer said. “Cal has his system, but the way he gets guys to compete … coach Few is the same way. There’s a high standard both set for their programs. It wasn’t fun going to practice some days for either one. You’re going to get yelled at but playing for both and seeing that coaching fire was great.”

Calipari’s coaching fire is the first thing that pops into Wiltjer’s mind when asked for his best Calipari story.

“I don’t remember the game in my freshman year, but I made two mistakes so I’m coming out of the game,” Wiltjer said. “He’s screaming at me. I just sit down, he finishes yelling at me and I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, I might not play the rest of the first half.’

“Literally 5 seconds later, he turns to me and it’s, ‘Kyle, get back into the game.’ That was one of his things, take you out, yell at you to make his point and put you back in and let you play. I went back in fearless and made two 3s. You make a mistake and he’s going to give you another chance.”

And Wiltjer’s best Few story?

“I can’t remember what the game is called, it’s not tennis,” begins Wiltjer, when an interviewer suggests pickleball. “Yes, pickleball. In the summer time when we went to the lake for one of those leadership (team-building) things. It was in between one of our sessions and he was just running the pickleball courts and nobody could beat him. The guy acts like he’s 30.”

Wiltjer has done several interviews leading up to Sunday’s game and he’s received numerous requests on Twitter for his prediction.

“This is my politically correct answer,” Wiltjer said. “Any time I’m doing a Gonzaga interview, I’m going for the Zags. Anytime it’s a Kentucky interview, I’m going ‘Cats.”

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