Tyler Ulis, an ultra competitor, does not usually hand out compliments after a loss. But the Kentucky point guard and floor general made an exception for Derek Willis.
“Derek played a great game,” Ulis said after Kentucky lost 75-70 at Auburn on Saturday. “That’s how you battle, what Derek did. That’s how you’re supposed to play, and he did.”
Ulis can give no higher praise. Willis earned it with his first career double-double: 12 points and 12 rebounds. His busy stat line also included two assists, a block, a steal and a career-high 31 minutes.
“I was so happy for him,” said UK Coach John Calipari, who pointed out that Willis grabbed rebounds with two hands. “If you ask me, he moved by all the other ‘bigs.’ That’s my opinion.
“Now, he has to be consistent with it.”
Willis’ eyes widened when told he had a double-double. His motivation, he said, was not Calipari going public Thursday with the player’s “bad habits” on defense.
Instead, Willis credited his father, Del, for stoking his competitive fire.
“Hey, I know what kind of player you are,” Willis said his father told him recently. “And I know what you can be and all the stuff you can do.”
Del Willis followed up with a text closer to game time.
“If you don’t have six rebounds, I’m going to be (upset),” Willis said of his father’s message.
By halftime, Willis had scored seven points, which was more than he’d had in all but five games this season. He also had already surpassed his previous career high in rebounds (six at UCLA) with eight.
Kentucky got a clutch basket from Willis at the end of the half. After a timeout with 22.9 seconds left, Willis set a pick for Ulis, then popped out beyond the three-point line. Ulis passed to Willis, who swished the three-pointer with five seconds left to set the halftime score.
Willis, who came into the game averaging 5.4 points and 2.1 rebounds, did not surprise Auburn.
“We knew he was a good shooter,” Tyler Harris said. “He was somebody you had to keep an eye on. … (Auburn wanted to) guard him like a guard.”
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said Willis’ shooting could help UK’s trio of standout guards.
“That Euro Four,” Pearl said of Willis. “That Stretch Four. When he’s on the floor, it really stretches the defense and opens up those driving lanes.”
Cal ponders changes
Calipari downplayed the notion of being alarmed by the defeat.
“It’s January,” he said. “What’s the date?”
When told it was Jan. 16, Calipari said, “We’re fine. I’m not worried about it.”
But the UK coach said he might not stand pat.
“I want to make some changes to see if guys will respond or fight,” he said. “Just let other guys play more. … If you don’t deserve minutes, let somebody else play.”
Saying the referees have abandoned the well-chronicled move to reduce physical play this season, Calipari said, “We’ve got to go back to football practice.”
The referees are allowing contact on drives and movement through the lane, he said. “They didn’t have the stomach to continue it. … The games are physical again.”
Kentucky had not prepared for this return to physical play, Calipari said. “So what you do is go back to practicing that way.”
Quote of the day
Auburn guard Kareem Canty on the Kentucky mystique: “A lot of people don’t think they’re human. That they can’t lose.”
Stat of the day
Ulis, the smallest player on the court, had more rebounds (10) than the three players in UK’s front-court rotation. Marcus Lee (four), Alex Poythress (three) and Skal Labissiere (two) had nine.
Barbs for Barbee
Auburn students had not forgotten Tony Barbee’s four seasons as the Tigers’ coach.
Jacob Varner, a junior from the Birmingham area, made and distributed 14 signs to his fellow Auburn students to hold during the game.
With the signs, the students threw barbs at Barbee. Riding renewed enthusiasm for the Star Wars movie series, one read “Barbee likes Jar Jar Binks.” There was a dig into UK history: “Barbee likes Christian Laettner.”
Another sign read: “Tony Barbee blocked me on twitter.”
Barbee’s record at Auburn inspired another sign: “I have as many SEC Tournament victories as Barbee.”
Barbee’s Auburn teams lost its four SEC Tournament games. In four seasons at Auburn, he had a record of 49-75 (18-50 in league play).
Barbee was not here to read the signs. He was on a recruiting trip, UK said.
Varner was dubious. “He wimped out,” he said. “Coaches recruit on Friday nights all the time. Kentucky has a way to get somebody over-night to games.”
Where are they now?
With three of last season’s top four scorers gone, Auburn is starting over this season. This season is sort of a reprise of last season’s Year I of a rebuilding project.
So where are Auburn’s top players now?
KT Harrell, who led the Tigers with an average of 18.5 points last season, is playing in Turkey.
Antoine Mason, the second-leading scorer (14.4 ppg), is playing in Cyprus.
KC Ross-Miller, once a Kentucky recruit of Billy Gillispie’s, finally made it to UK. He’s playing in the United Kingdom.