Confidence the Difference for Willis, Labissiere

Derek Willis had a breakout performance on Saturday, but his father stayed in his ear. 

The man Willis says is “the one that’s been pushing me towards this” wasn’t about to stop encouraging his son. 

“He said, ‘The first game you had against Auburn, it was an amazing game and you played really well,’ ” Willis said. “ ‘But what’s really going to keep you going is the next game and the next game.’ ”

One “next game” down, another to go.

Willis followed up his first career double-double with another outstanding performance, posting 12 points, seven rebounds and four blocks against Arkansas. And this time there was no bittersweet feeling as Willis left the floor having played well in a losing effort. No. 23/19 Kentucky (14-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference), with Willis serving as a frontcourt stalwart, bounced back from a disappointing defeat with an impressive 80-66 win over the Razorbacks (9-9, 3-3 SEC).

“I just want to stay consistent,” Willis said. “That’s the thing.”

Willis shot 5 of 8 from the field and 2 of 4 from 3-point range in making his second career start. Willis’ addition to the starting lineup was among the adjustment Calipari made this week after the Cats blew a big lead at Auburn, but it wasn’t some haphazard experiment.

“He earned it,” John Calipari said. “I didn’t give it to him. He earned it how he played at Auburn. Then he earned it in two days of practice. He was the leading rebounder in two days of practice.”

In spite of how well Willis had practiced, he did not get off to a flying start. He may have scored seven points in the first half, but his mentality wasn’t quite right.

“I thought in the first half he was a little tentative and I got on him,” Calipari said. “Because he had two tipped-back balls that he fumbled for no reason. No one was near him. And I got on him at halftime and he came out and performed, which tells me he’s building his own confidence. I can’t take it away from him.”

Another Wildcat – Skal Labissiere – is trying to reach that point himself. Thursday night was a step in the right direction. The highly touted freshman played 20 minutes and scored 11 points, his most in nearly two months, in using a solid week of practice as a springboard.

“We’ve been going at each other and I think practices, they’ve been harder than the game tonight,” Labissiere said. “We’ve been going at each other and that helped a lot. Going into the game, I was a lot more confident because I had a good past three days.”

Building confidence, however, takes more than a few days.

“He’s got to build it up,” Calipari said. “I can’t do it for him.”

What Calipari can do is put him in the best position to succeed. And on that front, he may have had an epiphany. He told his team about afterward.

“I said, ‘Guys, let me tell you, a lot of this is on me. Maybe he is a jump-shooting big guy. What do you think?’ ” Calipari said.

Calipari said Tyler Ulis – who scored a career-high 24 points – had the same revelation weeks ago.

“He’s not Shaq(uille O’Neal); he’s a jump-shooting big man,” Calipari said. “If he rebounds and blocks shots, I’ll let him shoot jump shots. How about the first one he took? You all looked at me like, ‘What is Cal going to do?’ The first one he took. It was like a 3. And you all looked at me and I was like, ‘If he …’ and it went in. I said, alright, good play.”

Labissiere mixed in a couple impressive dunks with his jump shot, as well three blocks.

“I think I did a better job today just being more alert, helping the guards because the guards brought a lot of intensity and I just had to make sure I was back there helping them whenever they made mistakes,” Labissiere said of his shot-blocking. “I think that was the key for tonight.”

Add in Willis’ four blocks and UK had a fairly fearsome rim-protecting duo, one that has had an impressive emergence over the last week.

“I think we all had been making really good progress,” Willis said. “It all started in practice. We’ve been doing really hard work with Coach Kenny Payne, conditioning, a lot of physicality. It’s been tough, but it’s been paying off in the game. I think that’s why we were so well prepared for this one. We were the aggressor and it stayed like that the whole game.”