John Clay

Who knew Derek Willis would be Kentucky basketball’s difference-maker?

You know when the season started I was the one who said Derek Willis would be the key to this Kentucky basketball team.

I was the one who said that when John Calipari finally made the commitment to give the junior forward a chance, then and only then would the Cats start to click.

Ok, so that’s not entirely true.

Ok, fact is, there’s not an ounce of truth to that.

I certainly had no idea that the former Bullitt East star, scarcely used his first two seasons as a Cats, would turn out to be the difference-maker. I’m guessing you didn’t either. I’m guessing no one did, not even the Hall of Fame head coach.

And yet that is exactly what has happened.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Calipari said on Wednesday night after his team had trounced poor visiting Missouri 88-54 at Rupp Arena, “a big part of it has been putting Derek Willis in the role that he’s in. It’s changed us. It’s just changed our team.”

After that disappointing loss at Auburn, when Calipari decided to stick Willis into the starting lineup, for whatever reason, this Kentucky team started to jell. It beat Arkansas by 14 in Fayetteville. It beat Vanderbilt by 19 at home. It manhandled Missouri.

Wednesday night, Willis scored 18 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked two shots. He made four of five three-point shots, three of those in the first five minutes of the game when the Cats were reeling off 20 straight points on the way to a 20-2 lead.

“I thought tonight Willis was the X-factor,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said.

With a little less than five minutes to go, Willis grabbed a rebound on the defensive end and took the basketball coast-to-coast, all by himself, for an electrifying slam that gave the Cats an 81-44 lead. It brought the crowd to its feet.

We forget that his junior year in high school, when he committed to Kentucky, Willis was considered one of the top college prospects in the nation. For whatever reason, his star faded a bit his senior season. He arrived at UK with a class that included the Harrison twins and James Young and Julius Randle and, well, Willis got lost a bit in the shuffle.

There were plenty of rumors that he was going to transfer. There were plenty of people who thought he should transfer. But he didn’t. He stuck right here. He’s a Kentucky kid. This where we wanted to be, where he wanted to play, where he wanted to contribute.

What Willis needed all along was confidence. He’s an honest kid with the media, more than most, and you could sense that doubt when he spoke. He was honest about his game, about his place on the roster and what he needed to do to make his mark. Knowing it is one thing, doing it is another.

He had shown flashes early this season, but never with enough consistency to make you think Calipari would find a constant role for his junior. And then, something happened. Maybe it was the way Calipari criticized Willis’ defense – “What’s a word worse than bad?” asked the coach – before the Auburn game. Maybe it was, as Derek has said, Willis’ father issuing a challenge to his son to be the player he knew he could be.

It doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it did happen. In that wake-up call loss at Auburn, Willis was one of the few Cats who really played. He scored 12 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. It caused Calipari to name Willis a starter. The Cats are not just 3-0 since, they are an impressive 3-0.

Saturday’s game at Kansas will surely tell a lot about this team, but where a couple of weeks ago you wouldn’t have given Kentucky much chance in Lawrence, now you have to feel like it has a chance.

Wednesday night, Calipari said that after the game he asked if Willis wanted to give any of the minutes he has taken from other players back?

“Coach,” said Derek Willis, “I just want to win.”

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