At about the time Kyle Wiltjer hit his fifth consecutive shot in the first half of Gonzaga’s 87-68 win over Iowa in the NCAA tournament’s round-of-32 on Sunday afternoon, it became obvious who this kid looks like.
He’s Adam Morrison with a haircut and a shave.
He’s got that same cold-blooded jump shot, and the scorer’s mentality that everything he tosses up is going to go in.
The difference is that he tries to play defense, which may not be the best approach since foul trouble caused him to play only 25 minutes against the Hawkeyes.
But in that time, the 6-10 junior forward pumped in 24 points, missing only two of 12 shots. Importantly, he was the vanguard of the shock-and-awe Zag attack in the first half, when they went up 46-29 on the strength of 62.1 percent shooting.
The bullet points of this one were obvious: With a talented roster balanced between big and perimeter players, they head into a regional semifinal game against UCLA.
But it was Wiltjer who makes this club different from some recent editions. Iowa was helpless against him. He scored on jump shots from nearly 30 feet to baseline slashes and put-back hoops. He even added seven rebounds.
It’s been obvious he had this in him, pouring in 45 points against Pacific one night this season. But big games against Pacific don’t draw the kind of attention as dominating an NCAA tournament opponent.
When asked a general question about the Zags’ 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, coach Mark Few said it’s always been “about being able to attract the great players.”
That is certainly the case with Wiltjer, a prep All-American from Portland. As a West Coast kid, he was familiar with Gonzaga. His father, Greg, also played junior college ball nearby at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene.
But Wiltjer was a thoroughbred, and signed with Kentucky, as a member of a national title team as a freshman, and the Southeastern Conference sixth man of the year as a sophomore.
The steady cycling in of All-Americans at Kentucky caused him to consider his future, and he transferred to Gonzaga and sat out last year. The Zags gave him the Kelly Olynyk treatment during that off year, building him up in the weight room, and working on his fundamentals.
He’s stronger and he defends, in stretches, and when he’s feeling it with the shot, look out.
“To be a good shooter, you have to have the confidence to shoot the next one,” Wiltjer said. “But tonight, when you get on a roll and my teammates do such a good job of finding me, you just get more and more confident. That’s what I was doing in the first half, and I’m just glad they were going in.”
Wiltjer fills so many roles for the Zags now, that he even took his appearance on the postgame dais as an opportunity to ask an “interview” question to bashful teammate Domas Sabonis. Being from overseas, what’s it like being a part of March Madness? Wiltjer asked.
Good question. Sabonis said he loved the emotion when he watched it on television, and wanted to be a part of it.
Wiltjer also is taking part in planning the Zags’ road itinerary. He said he was motivated to have a big game because Gonzaga was going to a “burger joint” for dinner Saturday night, and passing by Wiltjer’s favorite restaurant — Benihana. He voiced a beef about the restaurant selection, and an assistant told him they’d find a Benihana in Houston in the Sweet 16 next week if they won Sunday.
“So, I’m hyped,” Wiltjer said.
Hyped, yes. Although not over-hyped.
But a nation of college basketball watchers is now getting an eyeful of Wiltjer, no longer a cog at Kentucky, but a major star for the Zags.