Media types asked many questions Thursday about how Derek Willis' performance in the Blue-White Game possibly surprised Kentucky Coach John Calipari, the other UK players or himself. Amid the chatter about pseudo surprise, Willis noted a genuine stunner.
"I still got a lot of hate mail and stuff," he said of the reaction to his play. "I don't know what else I can do."
Hate mail? Presumably from people outside the boundaries of the Big Blue Nation (presuming such a realm exists). Willis, a homegrown product (Mount Washington, Ky.), figured to be a fan favorite. But he did not exclude the BBN from the h-a-t-e.
"Whoever's got Twitter," he said when asked to identify the haters.
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"I feel I had a decent game, at least."
Willis led the White team with 21 points and eight rebounds. He equaled Jarrod Polson's team-high three steals. He made five of his six three-point attempts.
Yet, some of the electronic static suggested this wasn't a "decent game." Just a scrimmage, the tweeters sniffed. "You're not ever going to play."
Calipari, who this pre-season has likened Willis to former North Carolina and NBA standout Bobby Jones, scoffed at the notion of being surprised by how well the freshman forward had performed. "He didn't know how good he was," Calipari said in correcting a reporter.
The UK coach noted how Willis is in the best shape of his life and able to play through bumps better than ever. Willis said he'd gained 10 or 11 pounds.
Still, Willis is listed as weighing 205 pounds, which over a 6-foot-9 frame isn't a lot.
"You'd think he'd be physically challenged in some of these practices," Calipari said. "He figures out ways (to compensate). So I think he's better than he thought. I see him (playing) better than I thought."
Going into Friday's exhibition game against Transy, Willis has positioned himself to contend for playing time in a rotation that Calipari suggested might be six or seven or eight players deep. Of course, with six of his fellow freshmen being McDonald's All-Americans and holdover veterans like Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson competing for time, it's inevitable that some players simply won't play much.
"He's deserving of playing time," Calipari said of Willis. "But there are a lot of guys deserving of playing time. We haven't figured out how it all lays out."
Willis acknowledged that the number of players can affect who gets to play.
"Some games it might be me," he said. "Some games it might be someone else. Wherever I fit in ... I'll just play to the best of my ability."
Willis sensed how his play surprised Calipari. "He said that himself," he said.
When asked if he had to overcome doubts about playing to UK's level this quickly, Willis said, "No. No. I always had confidence in my game. But there's a lot of talent here. I'm just trying to find a place where I fit in."Willis mostly sat and watched in the summer. Counting pros in town, even the teams in pickup games had a two-deep depth chart that he could not crack. That heightened the element of surprise for teammates once Willis began practicing.
"Now they kind of know how I play and what I can do," he said. "I still really don't think they know all I can do."
For now, this much seems obvious: Willis can shoot from the perimeter and beyond. His fifth three-pointer came from beyond the NBA line.
Willis, who wears a size 18 shoe, is also surprisingly light on his feet. He almost glides around the court.
To explain how he's so nimble for his size, Willis said, "As I grew, I never hit a freak growth spurt where I'd grow some ridiculous inches.
"I've just always been comfortable in my body and always been coordinated."
Truth to tell, his play in the Blue-White Game did surprise Willis.
"I didn't think I'd have that much fun playing in front of that many people," he said.
No. Name Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
00 Marcus Lee F 6-9 215 Fr.
1 James Young G 6-6 215 Fr.
2 Aaron Harrison G 6-6 218 Fr.
3 Jarrod Polson G 6-2 182 Sr.
4 Jon Hood G 6-7 215 Sr.
5 Andrew Harrison G 6-6 215 Fr.
13 Sam Malone G 5-11 185 Jr.
15 Willie Cauley-Stein F 7-0 244 So.
21 Tod Lanter G 6-2 190 Jr.
22 Alex Poythress F 6-8 239 So.
24 EJ Floreal G 6-3 195 Fr.
25 Dominique Hawkins G 6-0 193 Fr.
30 Julius Randle F 6-9 250 Fr.
32 Brian Long G 5-9 155 Jr.
35 Derek Willis F 6-9 205 Fr.
44 Dakari Johnson C 7-0 265 Fr.
No. Name Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
0 Trevor Tiller G 6-1 190 Fr.
1 Mason Monroe G 5-9 160 Fr.
3 Ethan Rowe G 6-0 170 Fr.
4 Lowell Gordon G 5-10 160 So.
10 Tommy Sirkin G 5-9 160 Jr.
11 Shae Goodlett G 6-1 185 Fr.
12 David Keyer F 6-4 195 Fr.
14 Parker Stansberry F 6-6 195 So.
15 Isaiah Dooley G 5-10 160 Jr.
20 Alex Jones G 6-3 150 Fr.
21 Zach Caggins G 6-2 175 Fr.
22 Logan Wade G 6-3 180 Fr.
23 Robert Igo F 6-6 210 Fr.
25 Jay Smith G 6-1 170 Fr.
30 Daniel Parke G 6-1 165 Fr.
31 Derek Jeffries F 6-5 220 Fr.
33 Chris Taylor F 6-6 205 So.
35 Garrett Dorfman G 6-1 190 Fr.
44 Joe Jennings C 6-9 260 So.
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When: 7 p.m. Friday | Where: Rupp Arena | TV: WKYT-27 and Fox Sports South | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1,