In order to play more minutes, Kentucky forward Derek Willis must develop greater confidence as a defender and shed some bad habits.
That was how Willis and UK Coach John Calipari sized it up on Thursday.
When asked about why he was not playing more, Willis said, “It’s just defensive confidence. . . . You just have to know you can guard that guy.”
Calipari warmed to that “great term,” and seemed to enjoy informing reporters that confidence is a factor on defense as well as offense.
Willis has played a larger role this season. In Southeastern Conference play, he’s averaged 14 minutes. That’s two more minutes than freshman Skal Labissiere, and more than triples Willis’ career average of 3.9 minutes going into this season.
With confidence, “You’ll let loose,” Calipari said before adding, “but (Willis’) habits are so bad. Like what’s the word below so-bad?
“We’re working every day for him to create better habits. They are what they are right now.”
Calipari defined bad habits as Willis keeping his hands down as he closes out on a shooter and too easily letting drivers go past him.
“You can’t just turn sideways and let him drive,” Calipari said. “You have to give ground and lunge to get in front of him so he has to go through your chest.
“It’s like we’re teaching a different language to him.”
When asked to compare the degree of difficulty on defense, Willis said he preferred to try to contain a bigger opponent.
“There are only so many patterns they can do,” he said. “When you’re out on the floor, there are way more options to guard.”
30 for 10
Speaking of defense, Calipari expressed alarm that Mississippi State scored 30 points in the final 10 minutes of Tuesday’s game at Kentucky.
“Are you kidding me?” Calipari said. “Do you understand that’s 120 (points) if we play the whole game that way.
Relax and regress?
Willis offered a thought on why Kentucky followed up an encouraging victory at Alabama with a less-than-satisfactory victory over Mississippi State.
“I don’t know if we went back to being comfortable,” he said. “I don’t think we had the same mindset. . . . I think it just goes back to that being comfortable thing.”
In that scenario, the Cats would think, “Oh, we got a win,” Willis said. “Oh, we can step back and keep doing what we did.”
Willis describes UK’s off day as “like a nothing day, almost.”
Greater consistency will come with better mental preparation, Willis said.
“Because talent-wise and physically, we are the most talented team in America,” he said. “It’s just being prepared and wanting to do well.”
‘Asking a lot’
Willis saluted how Tyler Ulis has taken on several roles.
“We’re asking a lot: run the team, make shots, defend for 94 feet . . . ,” Willis said. “He’s got the hardest job on the team. It’s just a lot.”
Inside Jamal Murray’s consistent scoring — double-figure points in all but one game this season — Calipari sees growth.
“Jamal is learning how to play winning basketball,” the UK coach said. “And you see every game he’s getting better.”
This was a reference to making easy plays and high-percentage plays at the expense of eye-catching plays.
“You’ll also see signs of the old Jamal,” Calipari said. “It’s still in there. We’re just trying to keep it in there.”
Auburn has lost three straight and five of its last six games. The nadir came in a 76-61 loss at Missouri. Auburn made it that close with a 13-2 face-saving run late in the game.
“I’m disappointed . . . ,” Coach Bruce Pearl said after the game. “The execution, again, wasn’t there. The first six or seven things we called, we had somebody in the wrong spot.”
Auburn, 7-8 overall and 1-3 in the SEC, has changed its priorities.
“We said we can’t focus on winning right now,” Pearl said. “Let’s focus on playing hard. . . . Our roster is obviously challenged.”
Opponents have outshot Auburn (44.5 percent to 43.5) and outrebounded Auburn (39.2-36.1). Auburn has more turnovers (214) than assists (194).
▪ In terms of bench points, Missouri outscored Auburn 40-5. “That’s just pretty darn enormous,” said Pearl, who lamented the injuries that have taken away Auburn’s backcourt depth. T.J. Dunans (knee) and Tahj Shamsid-Deen (shoulders) are sidelined.
▪ Saturday’s game is a sellout. Auburn has sold out its season tickets for a second straight season.
▪ Mark Jones and Kara Lawson will call the game for ESPN.