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The myth of Kyle Wiltjer fading in big games

After a poor performance against SMU and after his poor performance last time against Saint Mary's, some people think that the senior forward doesn't have what it takes to play the big stage.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As Nic Moore started to run away with the game against Gonzaga a week ago, it was hard not to wonder just a few what ifs.

What if Kyle Wiltjer had gone 5-for-15 instead of 2-for-17? What if Wiltjer had managed to make it to the free throw line just a couple of times, instead of none? How is it that Gonzaga's star player could fade away so magnificently in what was arguably Gonzaga's biggest game of the second half of the season.

If you take SMU's performance, combined with his six point performance in the loss to Saint Mary's earlier in January, there was suddenly chatter from the fan base that Wiltjer doesn't have that killer instinct. When push comes to shove, in those emotional, high-level games, Wiltjer is going to wilt(j).

This statement and thought process, in short, is ludicrous.

Let's ignore the fact that of Wiltjer's 17 shots against SMU, many of them were good looks, and sometimes good looks from good shooters just don't fall. The ball rims out, rolls out, bounces out, and does whatever it can from giving you points. Those games happen!

But that isn't enough. It is hard to look past the fact in Gonzaga's two biggest games of the second half of the season, Wiltjer combined for 10 points.

Ken Pomeroy recently created a Tier A and B reference on his website. Tier A and B games represent games against top 50 and 100 opponents, respectively, adjusted for game location. To a certain extent, Pomeroy's math lends weight to the idea of Wiltjer "disappearing" in big games this season.

Overall 118.7
Conference-only 127.2
Tier A + B 94.4
Tier A 91.2

On its face, it does look like Wiltjer has faded away for big games this season. But sometimes statistics can only do so much, so let's take a look at how those games have actually played out.

opponent tier points ORtg
Washington B 24 120
Texas A&M A 18 108
Connecticut A 17 117
Arizona A 33 118
@ Saint Mary's A 6 68
@ Pepperdine B 17 90
@ SMU A 4 41

What you have right there are essentially four good games, one alright game, and then two really, really, really, really bad games. Those two really, really, really, really bad games are what is driving this discussion. Because if you look at the picture overall, Wiltjer isn't crashing and burning against the big teams. He was phenomenal against Arizona and Washington, and Pomeroy's Tier A and B games doesn't include BYU or UCLA for some reason. Against UCLA, his ORtg was 142 and against BYU it was 109.

In most of Gonzaga's losses this year, Wiltjer has showed up and carried his weight on the offensive end. In two games he hasn't and he hasn't in quite the visible way. You can even go further back into his career at Gonzaga to help dispel this notion that he shrinks away when it counts the most. Here are his stats in tier A and B games last season.

Season 128.2
Conference Only 129.2
Tier A + B 114.4
Tier A 116.1

There is a dip there, to be sure, and that is understandable. When you are playing against Southeastern Louisiana you are going to put up better numbers (ORtg of 199!!!) versus Iowa. Last season, according to Pomeroy's rankings, the Zags also played more Tier A and B teams throughout the season--16 compared to seven so far this season.

So does Wiltjer fade in big games? I would say the short answer his no. He has had a couple of very rough games this season, and those have skewed his numbers a bit towards the negative side. Is the fact that he has had a couple of very rough games in a row an indicator of the beginning of a trend? Again, I would argue no. There weren't too many shots against SMU that were bad shots by any means, and it isn't every day that a guy hitting 42 percent of his threes is going to go 0-for-8 from beyond the arc.

What it boils down to, however, is that Wiltjer is the star of this team on an offense that can obviously ill-afford to have him go quiet in a game. Therefore, his poor performances are magnified to a much greater extent than most other players on the team. Those poor performances have also come at a much lower clip than most of the other players on the team. Wiltjer isn't going to score in single digits too often, and just because its a big game doesn't mean it has a greater likelihood of happening.