UK Men's Basketball

Mon dieu! Derek Willis becomes force for Kentucky

Kentucky measures Tyler Ulis by the size of his heart

Wildcats love sophomore point guard's competitive spirit
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Wildcats love sophomore point guard's competitive spirit

To explain the sudden emergence of Derek Willis as an impact player, Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee had reporters scurrying to their French-to-English dictionaries.

“Derek deserves the opportunity to play because of his mental approach,” Barbee said Tuesday. “He’d admit he’s had a little laissez-faire attitude in his approach to practice. . . . For some reason it (changed) about a month ago.”

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, laissez-faire means leaving things to take their own course.

When a reporter bounced the term laissez-faire off Marcus Lee, he nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, I definitely see a little change in Derek,” he said. “I think he’s more mentally ready to take advantage of everything. And since it’s right there, he’s been more aggressive offensively, more aggressive defensively.”

A case can be made that this take-charge approach has turned Willis into Kentucky’s most productive frontcourt player. Since joining the starting lineup three games ago, he’s nearly averaged a double-double: 10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds.

“It’s made a huge difference for us as a team,” Barbee said.

Lee said that Willis’ play as taken “a big toll” off Alex Poythress and himself. “Because we were the only ‘bigs’ doing a lot. Now, we have Derek coming in and he’s doing really great.”

Barbee pointed out that the threat posed by Willis’ three-point shooting (seven of 17 in the last four games) forces defenses to spread out, which opens up driving lanes for Kentucky’s three star guards.

A laissez-faire attitude can be hard to resist when a player sees little chance for playing time. In his first two UK seasons, Willis averaged less than four minutes in the games he got off the bench.

“We were in the same boat,” Lee said. “We were kind of trying to get in where we could.”

A laissez-faire attitude can come “real easy,” Lee said, “especially as the year goes on. You kind of notice you can’t be as helpful during the games. . . . You have to kind of kick yourself into being into the team.”

Ulis a ‘big?’

Although UK lists Tyler Ulis as 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, he can be considered one of the team’s “bigs.”

“Like we always say, it’s not how big you are, it’s how big you play,” Barbee said. “And Tyler is one of those guys who looks in the mirror and he sees a guy about 6-8 (and) 280 pounds.

“That’s how he think he is, and that’s how he plays. . . . It’s a great trait to have. We wish more players had that.”

Time and score

Barbee hit on a favorite topic of late: How Jamal Murray needs to take time-and-score into consideration when deciding to take a shot.

“When you’re an elite scorer like he is, sometimes in your mind, you see it visually,” Barbee said. “‘I can score any time.’

“But understand when it’s that time to go, when it’s time to pass, when it’s time to move the ball (run clock).”

When asked if an elite scorer like Murray had grown accustomed to making difficult shots regardless of time-and-score, Barbee said, “Not only did it work, you were expected to do it all the time.”

PT for Skal?

After Skal Labissiere played only four minutes last Saturday, UK Coach John Calipari said the matchup with Vanderbilt did not favor the freshman big man.

Barbee suggested Missouri’s style might translate into more playing time for Labissiere.

“It’s possible . . . ,” Barbee said. “This could be a game where he can be more impactful.”

Missouri competes

Although tied for last place in the SEC, Missouri has continued to compete.

“We are a team that has continued to fight and claw,” Coach Kim Anderson said. “Played some teams close. Not been able to get over the hump, but hopefully we’re able to continue to improve.”

The Tigers have lost 20 straight games away from home.

A bright spot came in a 76-61 victory over Auburn, Eleven different Missouri players played and scored in the game.

“In order for us to win and be successful, we need that kind of performance every game,” Anderson said.

Another bright spot: playing competitively in the wake of the school self-imposing penalties in reaction to rule violations during Frank Haith’s time as coach. Missouri will not be eligible for postseason play this year.


▪ In Monday’s practice, Dominique Hawkins aggravated a high ankle sprain he suffered against Ole Miss, Barbee said.

▪ Missouri guard Wes Clark has twice scored career-high points this season: 22 against Savannah State and 26 against South Carolina.

▪ Mike Morgan, Joe Dean Jr., and sideline reporter Laura Rutledge will call the game for the SEC Network.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton