Willis Steadies UK's Ship in Opener

Wenyen Gabriel has been working with Kentucky’s starters for weeks, forming a five-man group with De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo.

Not long before the Wildcats opened the 2016-17 season, John Calipari – based on a gut feeling – elected to replace Gabriel with Derek Willis.

“We started him based on the fact that I just didn't feel comfortable starting the first game out of the gate with four freshmen on the court,” Calipari said. “He proved me right.”

The stage was set and the lights were bright on Friday night, a big moment for anyone and especially those who had not experienced a regular-season game in Rupp Arena. The freshmen in the starting lineup showed the magnitude of the situation in the early going, with Monk struggling and Adebayo picking up two quick fouls.

Fortunately, there Willis was, proving Coach Cal right and steadying UK’s ship.

“Derek came out – this was his first game of the season,” Fox said. “It’s our first game ever in college, me, Malik and the rest of the freshmen. Just came out and showed what a senior is supposed to do. He put up points, he put up points in bunches really quick. He got comfortable so that allowed us to get comfortable.”

The senior forward scored seven of Kentucky’s first nine points and 10 overall within the first 4:18. He would go on to finish with 15 points, five rebounds and three blocks as UK dispatched Stephen F. Austin, 87-64.

“I want to try to set the tone,” Willis said. “I felt like we just needed to have that energy brought. I felt like that’s kind of what I started doing once I started playing last year. Just wanted to bring that.”

Willis appears well positioned to build on a junior season that saw him go from little-used bench player to featured contributor, but he’s not taking his role for granted. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“It’s my senior year,” Willis said. “I want to make the most of it. Come in an hour or so before practice, get on the court and stretch out, shoot around a little bit. Work out with KP (Kenny Payne). All the big guys do that. Knock that out and get my mind set on practice and what I want to do for the day. And then I stay after.”

Willis’ work ethic doesn’t go unseen by his coach.

“I'm so proud of Derek Willis,” Calipari said. “… Like he's the first one at practice, and he's the last one to leave. That went from, I blow the whistle, we are done with practice, and he would run to the door. And I would say, 'Derek, can I talk to you guys first before you leave?' And the last one -- now, he's on a mission.”

That mission has even expanded to taking on a more vocal role with his team, with Willis going so far as to offer suggestions during practice to Calipari based on his three years of experience.

“Ever since my freshman year I’ve been wanting to win a national championship,” Willis said. “I felt like my role was just kind of not where I could speak up. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. I was trying to learn what I could and didn’t really want to talk. I just wanted to listen. Now I feel like I have a better understanding of what the coaching staff wants to get done. I know what they expect.”

Because he knows what his coaches expect, he wasn’t surprised when Calipari got on him about rebounding in Friday’s game. Stephen F. Austin – which has advanced to three straight NCAA Tournaments – bested UK on the boards, 36-28, and Willis was to blame on a handful of occasions.

“I think there were about three or four possessions, probably even more, where I didn’t come up with some defensive rebounds,” Willis said. “I let my man get by me. I wasn’t too happy about that. Some defensive lapses. My guy just drove me, but it’s the first game of the year, season opener. So just trying to work out what we can and learn from our mistakes.”

Willis, with practice on Saturday ahead of another game Sunday vs. Canisius, already has a plan in mind for how he’ll do exactly that.

“I think what I’m going to start doing though is doing some kind of rebounding drill or getting more physical with somebody because I was just really disappointed in how I rebounded tonight,” Willis said. “I felt like I could have come up with probably three or four more rebounds.”

Willis, even when he wasn’t playing, has always been honest about the flaws in his game. The difference is now he’s proven to everyone, including himself, he has plenty of strengths too.

“I think it’s just a mindset,” Willis said. “My mindset’s completely changed from last year. I feel like deep down I did know I could play, but it was a matter of getting out there and doing it. I feel like now I’m doing it in practice and then coming out and transitioning with the game. It’s been good for me. It’s just something I want to expand on, being a more complete, multi-dimensional player.”