When Kentucky staged a media availability this pre-season and Derek Willis took a seat, an obvious question came to mind: Are you still here?
"Right to the point," Willis said. "I like it."
No, Willis hasn't given in to frustration. He seems well on the way to being UK basketball's Sisyphus, the figure in Greek mythology doomed to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down, the action and reaction repeating itself again and again. In Willis' case, he is the basketball player hoping to move into an on-court role, only to have UK's latest class of heralded freshmen return him to the depths of the depth chart.
"Right," he said of being UK's Sisyphus. "You're right."
The pattern continued this pre-season. After showing improvement in early workouts, he injured a finger in Saturday's practice. That will sideline him for two weeks.
Willis broke the bone near the tip of the big finger on his left hand trying to catch a pass from teammate EJ Floreal. "Felt like I jammed it like any other day," he said. "And I looked at it and my bone is sticking out.
"My first thought was just push it back in. I don't know why. So I snapped it back. They didn't have to reset it or anything. It was all good."
Willis said he hoped to be sidelined no more than 10 days or so.
Problems off court in his hometown of Mount Washington complicated his goal of playing more than he had during the past two UK seasons (appearances in 33 of UK's 79 games, averaging 3.5 minutes). He called the problems "everyday people issues" and said he'd rather not go into detail.
"Once I started letting that get played out and talked to people about it, your mind is cool," he said. "Now, I can focus on basketball and stuff that really matters to me."
Calipari, who once likened Willis to four-time NBA All-Star Bobby Jones, said this season presents a new chance for Willis to roll his career to the top of UK mountain. Actually, two chances.
"He could break through at three or four," Calipari said, meaning at either forward position. "He just has to have confidence and want to do it."
Willis' desire came into question last season when he acknowledged not giving basketball 100 percent of his attention and effort.
"That just goes back to the off-court stuff that you deal with," he said. "How you prepare for everything. It's all in your head."
In September, Calipari recalled an exchange he had with Willis that, perhaps, shows what it will take to play more.
"They were playing the other day, and he missed some shots," the coach said of Willis. "So I saw him after and I said, 'How did it go?' He said, 'Well, I missed some shots.' I said, 'What were the guys saying to you?' 'They told me to keep shooting.'
"So," Calipari concluded, "there's nothing holding him back. Go for it. I'm going to play the best people. If you're one of the best people, go do it. Show it and make it no question that's you."
Willis said he is better prepared to contribute this season than he was in either of his first two UK seasons. He said he is aware of little things that affect the "game-state." For instance, boxing out or simply running hard.
He's also learned another attribute that can help him as a UK player and there after.
"You've just got to be patient," he said. "This is the best place. The best fans. The best resources. For your future after here."
As for the past two seasons, Calipari suggested that Willis' lack of playing time might not draw much attention somewhere other than Kentucky.
"We get carried away here," the coach said. "He didn't play for a couple years. ... Across the nation, that's the norm. What he's going through is normal. They don't play the first couple years. They get their opportunity.
"At some point, there's no excuse. You either want to do this or you don't. At some point, you break through."
Meanwhile, as he prepares another attempt to scale UK mountain, Willis hears his eligibility clock ticking louder and louder.
"Oh yeah, for sure," he said. "I wouldn't say it's make-it-or-break-it time. But it's just, like, c'mon, you've had your two years. I used my two years to kind of figure things out. Now, if I put my mind to it, I'll do it. I'm not worried about it. It's a process."