Willis Capitalizes on Opportunity, Stays Ready for Next One

When two sets of five-man platoon systems 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 upon 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 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 crowded roster of nine McDonald’s All-Americans, Willis has already felt 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 an inconclusive prognosis concerning Ulis and Booker, 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.