Game-Changing Willis Overcoming Bumps and Bruises

Derek Willis was moving like walking to class would be a challenge, but somehow he had just played 25 minutes in a Division I college basketball game.

“My knees feel like—oh, they just feel horrible,” Willis said. “And was it yesterday I twisted my ankle? Maybe it was today. I don’t even know. I can’t get my body healthy right now.”

Healthy or not, Willis – the junior buried on the bench for most of his first two-and-a-half seasons – has transformed Kentucky into a burgeoning national-championship contender.

“What's changed our team is Derek,” John Calipari said. “He made us a totally different team. The minute we said -- then you say why didn't you do it earlier? Didn't know. When we went to it, it was obvious everybody could see he just changed our team.”

Just ask Tennessee.

The Volunteers (12-14, 5-8 Southeastern Conference) were mostly helpless as Willis poured in a career-high 25 points, nailing 7-of-11 3-point attempts in an 80-70 victory for No. 14 UK (20-6, 10-3 SEC).

“Coming in we knew, you look at a guy like Tyler Ulis who is terrific, controls the game, and does so many things, you have to believe he and Jamal Murray are going to get theirs,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “What you hope is that you don’t let a guy like Willis break out like he does. They do enough that they’re going to get there so you can’t let the third or fourth guy get going. That’s what happened.”

He played perfectly off pick-and-rolls and penetration by UK’s dynamic backcourt, a theme consistent since Willis’ emergence as a regular contributor a month ago at Auburn. Over that 10-game stretch, Willis is averaging 11 points and 6.8 rebounds, hitting 27-of-62 (43.5 percent) from 3-point range in the process.

“He scores, he’s always getting open shots and knocking them down,” Murray said. “So he’s become a big part of our offense and we need him to keep hitting shots and keep rebounding.”

And in return, Ulis (nine assists) and Murray (28 points to extend a remarkable hot streak) had all sorts of room to operate.

“It’s another person to worry about,” Willis said. “When they want to go man-to-man, it can stretch the court out more and that’s why I feel like in my position it’s just so important to open up those lanes for Isaiah (Briscoe) and Jamal and Tyler.”

There were many who thought the days of Willis being a major contributor would never come. Willis admits uncertainty himself, but says his mentality hasn’t changed as he’s gone from leading cheers from the bench to receiving them on the court.

“Just never knew,” Willis said. “I just wanted to win. I’m trying to get a championship and that’s really it. I don’t care about the points and stuff. I’m just trying to win and just do that.”

Armed with that mentality, Coach Cal only sees Willis getting better.

“I think as he defends better and rebounds even better and becomes where he enjoys physical play like he wants it like ‘this is how I want to play,’ he becomes as good as anybody,” Calipari said.

But in the meantime, Willis is a pretty solid player.

“He's confident,” Calipari said. “He takes responsibility when he's playing poorly. He's not looking to make excuses.”

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Moments after Thursday’s win, Willis didn’t want to bask in the glow of his scoring outburst. Instead, he delivered a fairly harsh self-critique.

“Like tonight I didn’t even really play hard,” Willis said. “I hate to say that, but I didn’t feel like I played hard. I’m just being honest. I’m not trying to put it on my body right now because it feels like crap, but I just didn’t play hard. I feel like I could have gotten more rebounds. I feel like I could have played better defense.”

Willis sees improving defensively as his next challenge. With opponents realizing the offensive threat he poses is not going away, he’s noticed them trying to attack him at the other end of the floor.

“I think that’s what they’re trying to do now,” Willis said. “That’s just back on me to try and play better defense.”

Don’t bet against him.

“The other thing is he's coming every day,” Calipari said. “Doesn't mean he makes shots every day, but he comes every day and gives you everything he has.”