UK Men's Basketball

Willis’ riches-to-rags-to-riches story fuels UK surge

Kentucky forward Derek Willis, left, grabs a rebound from Georgia forward Mike Edwards in the first half. The University of Kentucky hosted the University of Georgia, Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2016 at Rupp Arena in Lexington .
Kentucky forward Derek Willis, left, grabs a rebound from Georgia forward Mike Edwards in the first half. The University of Kentucky hosted the University of Georgia, Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2016 at Rupp Arena in Lexington .

Home-state hero to seldom-used bench warmer to difference-maker for a ranked team.

It’s been quite a riches-to-rags-to-riches story for Derek Willis. But while media types invited him to take a bow after Kentucky beat Georgia on Tuesday, Willis said teammate Tyler Ulis was more deserving of applause.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit,” Willis said. “Every game he should be the talk of something.”

Willis then listed Ulis’ many contributions: Vocal leader, “extension of Coach Cal,” defender of the opposition’s key backcourt player, scorer, play-maker, tireless tone-setter.

“Without that kid, we don’t have a top 25 team,” Willis said. “We’re probably not even a .500 team.”

Since every conversation about Ulis must include a mention of his height (5-foot-9), a reporter asked Willis if UK’s point guard would get more recognition if he were, say, 6-2.

Ulis already is recognized nationally, Willis said. Evidence of that came recently when Ulis was named one of 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the nation’s top point guard.

Only eyewitnesses who’ve had repeated viewings can fully appreciate what Ulis gives Kentucky, Willis said.

“You have to kind of be in the building to understand the energy he brings,” Willis said. “And all the intangibles. I don’t know.

“If I’m a NBA GM . . . , I’ll take that kid. Just on his heart alone. He can figure everything else out.”

I feel I’ve always had the skill set to play the game. . . . And I had the knowledge of the game. It was just a thing of where I didn’t really have confidence.

Derek Willis

Willis has had his own figuring out to do in three seasons at Kentucky. While leading Bullitt East to two 6th Region championships, he became the first player in the class of 2013 to commit to Kentucky.

Then Willis watched heralded recruit after heralded recruit sign with UK. The writing was on the wall. Or, in this case, on a seat at the bench.

As a freshman and sophomore, Willis played in 33 of Kentucky’s 79 games. He averaged 3.5 minutes, 1.2 points and 0.7 rebounds.

“Sitting for two years, it was just weird for me,” Willis said. “I just looked at it as I’m playing behind all these draft picks, and they’re going to make millions.”

So, Willis decided that the best course was to compete against the so-called one-and-done players “and learn as much as you can. And that’s how it happened.”

10.6, 7.6Derek Willis’ per-game averages for points and rebounds since becoming a starter

Willis acknowledged that it took him awhile to rationalize his situation and make the most of it.

“I was kind of lackadaisical with basketball to an extent,” he said.

Friends persuaded him to compete, he said. These friends said that they, too, had to compete in their Monday-through-Friday jobs. This competition involved seeing who could make the most sales or who could be “better friends with the boss.”

The lesson Willis took away from his friends’ advice? “If competition is going to be an issue for you, it’s going to be a hard life,” he said.

It took awhile for Willis to make a big impact on this Kentucky season. In UK’s first 16 games, he played less than 10 minutes seven times. He never got off the bench in an eighth game (against Ohio State).

With the search for a dependable low-post presence stalled, Kentucky tried spreading the opposing defense with Willis joining Jamal Murray and Ulis as the team’s three-point shooters.

After coming off the bench at Auburn and posting a double-double (12 points, 12 rebounds), Willis became a starter. He’s averaged 10.6 points and a team-high 7.6 rebounds.

“I’m really proud of him,” UK Coach John Calipari said after Willis scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds against Georgia. “He’s rebounding the ball. He’s getting better defensively.

“Still not there. But this team believes in him, and he believes in himself more.”

Willis cited increased confidence as the key to his productive play.

“I feel I’ve always had the skill set to play the game . . . ,” he said. “And I had the knowledge of the game. It was just a thing of where I didn’t really have confidence.”

Calipari reminded those at the postgame news conference that a player blossoming as a junior or senior is not unusual. As the UK coach has said before, that can be a normal progression.

“His path is like the normal path . . . ,” Calipari said of Willis. “And, you know, if Dom (Hawkins) hadn’t been hurt, you’d probably have two of those guys.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Saturday

Kentucky at South Carolina

Noon (ESPN)

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