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When two sets of five-man platoons aren't enough, it pays to be the 12th man (in terms of minutes played) on the No. 1 team in America. For Derek Willis and the rest of the Kentucky Wildcats, opportunities are only what are made of them.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of my opportunity," said Willis. "Devin (Booker) and Tyler (Ulis) are out, so I was called to step up. I'm just out there playing."
With Booker and Ulis -- who together compose the backcourt of Kentucky's White Platoon -- sidelined by injury, Willis was counted on for important minutes down the stretch of Wednesday's tight matchup with Columbia University. The Cats won the game 56-46, while Willis shined in the process.
"Derek was really good today," said head coach John Calipari. "I thought Derek was outstanding."
As a result of the self-sacrificial, all-for-one mentality that Calipari has instilled in his 12-deep rotation, what's reflected in the box score may not accurately represent the impact of each Kentucky player. Willis' five points (on 2 of 2 free-throw shooting and a made 3) and one offensive rebound came in only nine minutes on the floor. In a dismal shooting performance as a team, only two Wildcats scored in double figures. Without Willis' noteworthy performance, the Cats' undefeated record may have been in jeopardy.
"If my opportunity comes up," said Willis, "I'm just going to play my game and just help the team."
Though Willis' first two years in Lexington have been spent mostly learning from the sideline, the 6-foot-9 Mt. Washington, Ky. native continues to prepare for each game with a starter's mentality.
"You go from playing your whole life, starting your whole life, and now you're on probably one of the most unbelievable teams ever made," Willis said. "If you have that mentality of whenever my opportunity comes up, you just take advantage of it and you're always ready."
Like most major collegiate athletes, Willis admits aspirations of one day playing at the next level. With more performances like his on Wednesday, stat sheets will start to matter a lot less than the Wildcats' win total.
"If you can play basketball, (NBA executives) know you can score," Willis said. "So they're looking at defense and rebounding, and all the intangibles that a lot of players don't do, or don't really recognize."
Thanks to Kentucky's crowed roster of nine McDonald's All-Americans, Willis has already tasted the effects of playing alongside top-to-bottom talent.
"The dudes in the NBA that don't play, they're still working out an hour before (the game)," said Willis. "Then, after the game, they put another hour in."
With No. 21 North Carolina on the horizon and Ulis and Booker's uncertain status, Willis may not have seen the last fruits of his labor.
"If Devin can't play and Tyler does play (Saturday versus UNC), then Derek will be the two on that team," Calipari said of UK's second rotation. "He'll be the other player."
The Wildcats and Tar Heels will square off Saturday at noon at Rupp Arena. The game will be televised on CBS. Carolina won last season's contest 82-77 in Chapel Hill, and lead the all-time series 23-13. However, Calipari is 3-2 versus North Carolina since taking over at Kentucky.
With underdog Columbia jumping out to an 11-0 lead in the opening minutes, the lack of energy quickly spread to the crowd.
The Wildcats never did manage to find their fastball, but Trey Lyles was the player who came the closest to getting them there.
"Great motor," Calipari said of the 6-foot-10 freshman. "Great motor."
Lyles' numbers as No. 1 UK overcame two 11-point first-half deficits to move to 10-0 against the visiting Lions with a 56-46 win don't exactly jump off the box score, but his impact did. His seven points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocks would have looked better had he made a couple more shots from in close, but his approach was the game-changer.
"I just went out there and played with energy and tried to help the team in any way I could," Lyles said.
With Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker out on Wednesday due to injury, UK's two-platoon system couldn't work quite as intended. Coach Cal said that contributed to the Cats' inability to move from the malaise, but a second-half shake-up helped them take control after trailing by two at halftime.
Lyles started the second half in place of Alex Poythress, his first-platoon counterpart, the latest proof of Calipari's "it's not communism" tenet with the system.
"Boom, out," Calipari said. "Trey, go. I mean, it's not real hard. The way we're doing this, the only thing I'm asking is, play with a high motor, really play with energy, clap, be enthusiastic, play."
Lyles, even with his McDonald's All-American pedigree and months into his college career, has come to grasp exactly that.
"That's just what I need to do and what he wants from me," said Lyles, who played a season-high 30 minutes. "I have to do that for the team, it's what the team needs. I'm not the only guy. Marcus Lee does the same thing. Alex does the same thing. We all just have to contribute in some way."
Lyles' biggest contributions on Wednesday came on the glass.
With shots not falling - particularly not from 3, where UK hit just 2 of 17 - there were ample opportunities for offensive rebounds, but the Cats weren't capitalizing as often as they normally do in the first half. At halftime, UK had just a 17-15 edge on the boards in spite of a significant size advantage.
To turn it around, Calipari turned to a group that's rarely played together this season, if ever.
"Trey Lyles went after the ball," Calipari said. "I went to a different lineup. Dakari (Johnson) and Karl(-Anthony Towns) weren't getting balls, so I went with Willie and Marcus Lee and we started getting rebounds. You know, this was one of those games where Marcus and Willie were the two that broke the game open. With Trey and, you know, the two guards with Derek Willis. Those seven broke the game open playing that way."
The stretch in which they did it came from the 16:18 mark of the second half to 1:39 left in the game. The Cats outscored Columbia 25-7 in that time, turning a three-point deficit into a 15-point lead. In the process, they paved the way for a 24-13 second-half rebounding edge.
Lyles, of course, had a lot to do with that, though he'd also tell you he has plenty to work on.
"I'm doing all right," Lyles said. "I'm missing too many shots, but that's on me to get in the gym and keep working on it. When shots aren't falling I have to do other things such as rebound and play with energy."
He's got that part taken care of.
Starting on the No. 1 team in the land, Towns was among the nation's top shot-blockers and even won Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors after big games against UT Arlington and Providence. He followed that up with 10 more points in Kentucky's second top-10 win of the season against Texas.
But the Saturday after the victory, Towns had a reaction you might not expect.
"I woke up in the morning, brushed my teeth - good hygiene, that's the biggest thing - and I looked in the mirror and I wanted to be better," Towns said. "I wanted to do something a little different than what I'm used to."
For Towns, there's no bigger departure from the norm than abandoning the toothy grin that he's come to be known for around the Joe Craft Center.
"He's got a very nice smile," assistant coach Barry Rohrssen said. "He really does."
Fear not, Coach Rohrssen, the smile isn't going away all the time.
Towns, seeking to find an edge to take his game to the next level, decided stash his smile in favor of a scowl during UK's matchup with Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. Towns' theory is that he plays his best when he's mad, so why not take that mentality to tipoff?
His logic, it seems, was sound.
The freshman was dominant against the Colonels, posting 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting, nine rebounds and four blocks. Just as importantly, the performance drew rave reviews from his toughest critic, Karl Sr., which means Junior plans to try the same approach for UK's next game, a matchup with Columbia (5-2) at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
"My father liked it," Towns said. "He said it's a different person (than) he's ever seen, so I like it too. I looked at a little bit of tape and I thought it kept me a little bit more focused on the game. I like it. I'm going to keep experimenting with it."
Considering Towns had already established himself among the top NBA Draft prospects in the nation, it's somewhat of a scary thought if the experiment works. Towns, after that EKU performance that again won him SEC Freshman of the Week honors, is averaging 9.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 18.8 minutes.
"You're always looking for that next step to give your team another help," Towns said. "I'm just trying to help my team at all causes, at all times."
What Towns has going for him, other than his talent and 6-foot-11 frame, is he's on a team deep and experienced enough that he can experiment with the best ways to do that without having to worry about carrying the load on his own.
"For me it's been great knowing that I have a security blanket, I guess," Towns said. "Not everything's always going to be on my shoulders like it was in high school. The best thing about it is that I put pressure on myself. I want to be the best player I can possibly be. I want to be the best I can be for this team, so I'm putting a lot of pressure just on myself."
Towns' ultimate goal is to forget the freshman label he's carrying and play like his veteran teammates, namely Willie Cauley-Stein, who dominated in the win over Texas that prompted his mini-reinvention.
"The biggest thing is just don't be timid," Towns said. "Go out there and have a ball playing, but also we're getting to that part of the season now. Games are going to be a lot harder. We gotta do what we gotta do to make sure that we're the best possible. If this mentality helps me and the team then so be it. I'll do it every game."
Rohrssen feels the same way, though he still wants Karl to remain Karl off the court.
"His priorities always seem in order," Rohrssen said. "Again, he isn't just a good player. He's a wonderful person. He's so well-liked in this building, among his teammates, on campus, in the community here. Throughout many of the events that we've done, Karl has always gone above and beyond even what you ask him to do."
Whether it's in basketball or in life, going above and beyond is what Towns does. It's just who he is.
"Karl is a bit different, in a good way," Rohrssen said. "In a very good way."