Kentucky vs. Kansas: Calipari nostalgic as Cats prepare for 'a war'
Teammates Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress laughed at the thought of Derek Willis as a rebounding machine. Coach John Calipari also smiled at the idea.
Once the grins faded, all agreed: Willis has become just that, and nobody saw it coming.
Those around the Kentucky program knew the junior from Mount Washington could shoot. They knew he could run the floor, they knew he was athletic. His skill was never in question to the players that practiced against him.
But a rebounding machine?
“That just came out of nowhere,” Ulis said Friday. “Coach Cal has been stressing it to him and he’s been coming out doing what he has to do. He had a double-double last game, he’s stretching the floor out for us, and he’s helping us out a lot.”
Poythress pointed out that Willis is 6-foot-9, long and athletic. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that someone like that would be successful on the boards, but nobody saw it in practice during his first 2 1/2 seasons at UK.
“He’s just really been honing in on it,” Poythress said. “He’s really just been focusing on, ‘All right, if I can rebound, I can stay on the floor.’ If he’s rebounding, he’s helping all of us. It puts the pressure off of the guards having to come down and rebound. Puts the pressure off of me.”
Willis had a total of 32 rebounds over UK’s first 16 games of the season. He has 40 in the Wildcats’ last four games, and that’s the reason he’s now in the UK starting lineup. It’s the reason he’s finally earned Calipari’s trust on the court.
You build your own self-esteem, your own self-worth. ... You work so hard, you prepare so hard that you expect to play well. That’s who he’s been.
Coach John Calipari, on UK forward Derek Willis
Following UK’s loss at Auburn — the last game Willis came off the bench — Calipari said he walked into the Wildcats’ locker room and asked if he needed to make changes.
He claims the players were yelling in the affirmative.
“Well, he was one of the changes,” Calipari said Friday. “You build your own self-esteem, your own self-worth. You had demonstrated performance on the court, which he now has. You work so hard, you prepare so hard that you expect to play well. That’s who he’s been.
“He’s been unbelievable in practice. Our best rebounder. Think about that.”
Hawkins makes progress
Junior guard Dominique Hawkins returned to practice Thursday after a recent setback in his recovery from a high ankle sprain suffered in the league opener against Mississippi on Jan. 2
John Calipari said Friday that Hawkins is still not 100 percent and wasn’t sure if he would play against Kansas on Saturday night. Hawkins played a season-high 26 minutes in UK’s victory over Louisville, the game before suffering the ankle injury.
Calipari said Tyler Ulis called Hawkins the “X-factor” after a recent scrimmage. When Hawkins couldn’t go any more and had to be taken out, Ulis’ team sputtered.
“(He has) a toughness, a steadiness,” Calipari said. “You know, a team player who will play within himself. Will defend and dive on the floor. ... And I think this team is really comfortable (with him).
“He’s a winner.”
Fun with teammates
Freshman guard Jamal Murray inserted himself into the UK press corps just as Tyler Ulis was asked why the Cats seem to be turning a corner lately.
“Defensively, we’re a totally different team,” Ulis said, spotting Murray in the scrum. “We’ve got Jamal trying to play defense — he doesn’t play much of that, but he’s helping us out now.”
Murray took over the questioning from there. “So what’s your take on Jamal Murray’s offense?” he asked Ulis.
“He can’t shoot,” Ulis responded. “He thinks he can shoot better than me, but, you know. ... There’s a couple of little shooting techniques in practice that I try to help him out with a little bit. I think he’s getting there.”
Murray smiled and walked away. “That’s all a lie,” he said.
▪ Five-star center Udoka Azubuike committed to Kansas over fellow finalists North Carolina and Florida State on Thursday night. UK recruited Azubuike early in the process but had not had any recent contact with him. Kentucky and Kansas are among the finalists for five-star post players Marques Bolden and Jarrett Allen as each program looks to round out its recruiting class of 2016.
▪ Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas and sideline reporter Shannon Spake are scheduled to call the UK-Kansas game for ESPN on Saturday night.
Derek Willis’ last four games