UK Men's Basketball

For Kentucky’s Willis, there’s a correlation between making shots and playing time

John Calipari: Derek Willis is on or off

Kentucky coach John Calipari talks about Derek Willis, who scored 16 points in win over Tennessee on Tuesday.
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Kentucky coach John Calipari talks about Derek Willis, who scored 16 points in win over Tennessee on Tuesday.

Kentucky’s continuing effort to get more production from the forward position has led to put-up-or-shut-up competition in practice. Senior Derek Willis and freshman Wenyen Gabriel have had more one-on-one time.

“If you’re not performing, I’ll go with Mychal (Mulder) at a four,” Calipari said Friday in the latest of the ultimatums he’s issued.

Calipari suggested that Willis’ playing time is directly related to his shooting.

“A guy you put in,” Calipari said. “If he’s really on, you leave him in there. If he’s really not, you’ll know right away, and ‘You’re out!’”

In the last 10 games, Willis has averaged 18.6 minutes in games he made one or none of his three-point shots. He averaged 23.7 minutes in games he made more than one three-point shot.

Two games skewed the contrast. Willis made only one three-pointer in the first game against Georgia. But he played 36 minutes, in part because it went into overtime and perhaps because he had five rebounds and a career-high four assists.

Willis made only one three-pointer but played 29 minutes against South Carolina. Perhaps it was because he grabbed seven rebounds.

“I’d like him to be more consistent,” Calipari said, “but at the same point, you have to say, here’s who he is, now. How do we do this? How do we get the best out of him being this is who he is?”

Kentucky freshman Wenyen Gabriel said Friday that as part of the reboot, John Calipari has had Gabriel and Derek Willis practicing more against each other. The two have shared the forward position in UK's three-guard lineup.

‘A different team’

In the first meeting, Georgia caught a Kentucky team reeling from back-to-back losses to Tennessee and Kansas.

Georgia Coach Mark Fox saw little significance for Game Two in having extended UK into overtime in Game One.

“They’re a different team right now,” he said. “I mean, they’ve really improved. … They’re a lot different than they were three weeks ago to the educated eye.”

When asked to explain, Fox said, “I think they’re more confident in what they do. …They just fit together so well right now. That’s really a credit to their kids buying in to play together, and John’s ability to do it.”

Keep it close

Fox did not say Georgia hoped to keep it close. But it sounded like that.

“Our hope is when you play Kentucky, you can make it a competitive game,” he said, “and find a way to battle because John’s teams are so good, and they get better throughout the year.”

Winning formula

De’Aaron Fox attributed UK’s rout of Tennessee (the biggest margin of victory since a 26-point beat-down of Arkansas on Jan. 7) to increased energy.

“We came ready to play,” he said. “We were more focused that game. I guess you could say it was revenge. If we can approach every game like we approached the last game, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

Fox saw this formula translating well away from Rupp Arena.

“If we come out with the same intensity we came out with the last game, I think even on the road we should be able to do what we’re supposed to do,” he said.

Hair today

Of course, Fox (the UK point guard) changed his hair style before Kentucky played Tennessee on Tuesday. He went with a man-bun.

When asked if this change sparked comments, Fox said, “Too many.”

No, he added, this did not come as a surprise. “Nah,” he said. Another change in style earlier this season also drew comments.

“I got lazy,” he said of the latest change. “After I washed it, I put it in a bun, and kept it moving.”

Kentucky guard De'Aaron Fox missed the first UK-Georgia game because of illness. He said Tuesday's 83-58 win over Tennessee was the best he has felt since returning.

Karma?

Georgia has been the SEC’s hard-luck team. The Bulldogs have lost two league games in overtime (including the game at Kentucky) and three other conference games by a total of nine points.

The tough luck had its signature moment at Texas A&M when a clock malfunction made Georgia think it had more time to take a potential game-winning shot than it actually had. A&M won 63-62.

So when a possible goal-tend was not called against Georgia near the end of a 76-75 victory at Tennessee last weekend, Vols Coach Rick Barnes could not bring himself to complain.

“No one’s had tougher luck than Georgia this year,” he said.

Fox has not embraced the idea of cosmic justice too tightly.

“You hope that all that stuff evens out,” the Georgia coach said. “For us, until it does, we’ve got to focus on just trying to play well and hopefully we get a few breaks along the way.”

Upgrade welcomed

Calipari welcomed the upcoming upgrades to the Craft Center’s practice facility for men’s basketball.

Noting upgrades in several other sports and the Craft Center being 10 years old, Calipari said, “You knew we had to be in line (for an upgrade). There’s a line because of us. I didn’t mind being last. We just had to be in line, and they knew it.”

Calipari applauded the multi-million-dollar revamping of the UK locker room area in Rupp Arena. But he said his team only uses that area 20 or so times a year. The players use the Craft Center 300 days a year, he said.

“They’re working,” he said. “They deserve to feel good.”

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks about the planned $4 million improvements to the Joe Craft Center where men's and women's basketball practice.

Etc.

▪ Georgia has an average home attendance of 7,095. Its Stegeman Coliseum has a listed capacity of 10,523. The game is part of a flex ticket package. It’s been sold out since the fall. There are no promotions planned.

▪ Dave O’Brien, Dick Vitale and sideline reporter Kris Budden will call the game for ESPN.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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