John Clay

As schedule toughens, Kentucky needs Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel to rise

Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabriel got between Tennessee-Martin’s Kedar Edwards, left, and Tennessee-Martin’s Fatodd Lewis (12) to score in the first half of UK’s win at Rupp Arena on Nov. 25. Gabriel has been splitting time and starts with senior Derek Willis.
Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabriel got between Tennessee-Martin’s Kedar Edwards, left, and Tennessee-Martin’s Fatodd Lewis (12) to score in the first half of UK’s win at Rupp Arena on Nov. 25. Gabriel has been splitting time and starts with senior Derek Willis. palcala@herald-leader.com

It’s near mid-December, right at the commencement of Camp Cal, and John Calipari appears to have four-fifths of his Kentucky basketball lineup set in stone. There’s the three-guard lineup of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe, plus the post presence of freshman center Bam Adebayo.

It’s that four-spot, the power forward position, or just the forward position, that has given Calipari cause for concern. Ten games into the season, the UK coach has switched back and forth between 6-foot-9 senior Derek Willis and 6-9 freshmen Wenyen Gabriel, unable to settle on a consistent answer at the position.

“We’re going to have games where that position is a tough position for us because they’re going to play a power game against us,” said Calipari after UK’s win over Hofstra on Sunday.

Willis has started five games, averaging 18.2 minutes and 7.3 points per game. The veteran is shooting 51.9 percent from the floor, including 35.7 from three-point range where he’s made 10 of 28 shots. Willis scored a season-high 15 points in the season-opening win over Stephen F. Austin and saw a three-game streak of games in double figures snapped Sunday when he was held to eight points.

Gabriel has started five games, averaging 20.4 minutes and 6.7 points per game. The rookie is shooting 53.1 percent from the floor, but has made just three of 14 for 21.4 percent from the behind the three-point line. Gabriel’s season-high is also 15 points, that coming against Tennessee-Martin in the middle of a three-game stretch in which he hit double figures. But he has been held to just seven points over the last three games.

Each forward has his strong points. With Alex Poythress battling injuries last season, Willis picked up valuable experience. He’s also the better shooter between the two. Gabriel is more active and, so far, he’s been the better rebounder — 5.8 per game to 4.0 for Willis. Gabriel had a season-high 10 rebounds against Cleveland State.

Yet, neither player is playing at the level Calipari wants at this point. The coach has pinpointed Willis’ defense, saying the forward needs to do a better job staying in front of his man, as well as getting to the glass. He’s also mentioned Gabriel’s rather thin frame and the need for the freshman to play better defense — “His legs are this big around,” said the coach after one game while making a small circle with his hands.

“He’s trying,” Calipari said.

His team having been outrebounded in four of its 10 games, the coach has experimented with other options. Sunday, Calipari tried a “big lineup” with 7-foot sophomore Isaac Humphries joining Adebayo on the floor, but the coach said he didn’t like what he saw and quickly scrapped the idea.

What about 6-10 freshman Sacha Killeya-Jones? The North Carolina native isn’t quite ready, said Calipari on Sunday, at least not for substantial playing time against the significant competition the Cats face ahead.

Start with Saturday’s game against North Carolina in Las Vegas. Besides center Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels boast a front line that includes 6-9 senior Isaiah Hicks, 6-8 junior Justin Jackson and 6-11 freshman Tony Bradley, whose block of Lajonte Turner’s shot with two seconds left saved UNC’s 73-71 win over visiting Tennessee.

Truth be told, the Cats have already been hurt at the position. The star of UCLA’s 97-92 win over Kentucky on Dec. 3 was not so much freshman guard Lonzo Ball or top-scoring senior Isaac Hamilton, but freshman power forward Ty Jacob Leaf, or TJ, the Kevin McHale play-alike who scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds that afternoon.

“He dominated us,” Calipari said afterward.

Said Willis that day, “We have to play better.”

The senior knows.

Next game

No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 7 North Carolina

What: CBS Sports Classic

Where: MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas

When: 5:45 p.m. EST Saturday (second game of doubleheader featuring No. 2 UCLA vs. Ohio State at 3 p.m.)

TV: CBS-27

Compaing Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel after 10 games

Player

MP

FG

FGA

Pct

3P

3PA

Pct

FT

FTA

Pct

O

D

R

PF

TP

A

TO

BS

ST

Willis

182

27

52

0.519

10

28

0.357

9

10

0.900

10

30

40

14

73

12

6

12

9

Gabriel

204

26

49

0.531

3

14

0.214

12

15

0.800

24

34

58

28

67

15

10

5

8

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