LEXINGTON — Freshman Derek Willis has played precious little after Kentucky coach John Calipari spent most of the preseason singing his praises, but you’re not going to hear a discouraging word from Willis, a 6-foot-9, 205-pound forward from Bullitt East High School.
Willis was one of two Wildcats who met with the media Monday in advance of tonight’s battleat Arkansas (the other player was Dakari Johnson), and Willis was pleasant, polite and matter-of-fact about his status as a reserve near the end of the UK bench.
His mood may also have been better because he picked up a season-high six minutes of playing time in Saturday’s 71-62 win at Vanderbilt, and they weren’t just garbage minutes.
Willis had one rebound and one steal, while going 0-for-2 from the field against the Commodores.
He’s played 30 minutes over nine games for the Wildcats, who are ranked 12th in the country with a record of 12-3 overall and 2-0 in SEC play going into action at 9 tonight on ESPN.
Arkansas is 11-4, and 0-2, off a rare loss Saturday at Bud Walton Arena — 84-82 in overtime to No. 7-rated Florida.
Willis has chipped in 14 points and six rebounds in his limited action.
“It felt great to finally play in an SEC game,” Willis said. “I had some people from back home that came down, and they made a poster for me and stuff, so that was really good. I guess the poster worked because it was like ‘It’s D-Will time’ or something like that, so that was pretty cool.”
Willis came to Kentucky billed as a deadeye perimeter shooter. He still fancies that skill, but he understands that’s not role No. 1 as a freshman for this group of Wildcats.
“We were having a problem in the first half getting the ball into the post, so I was really just trying to feed the post,” Willis said of his experience at Vanderbilt. “The Vanderbilt people couldn’t guard Willie (Cauley-Stein) and they couldn’t guard Julius (Randle), so I was just trying to help there.
“The thing is, when I’m in the game feeding the post, when they kick it back out to me, I can shoot a high percentage ... hitting the 3 or whatever.”
The fact that Willis missed both his field goal attempts Saturday did not significantly discourage him, though he admits: “I haven’t played a lot, so confidence is going to go down from that, but I’m trying to keep myself ready.”
Calipari gave Willis a high five when Willis came out of the Vandy game, which Willis appreciated, but Calipari suggested Monday that Willis needs to try harder to stay engaged.
“He hadn’t been shooting the ball well in practice, probably because he hadn’t been playing, and he didn’t think it was important,” Calipari said of Willis. “Well, now he found out it was important.
“I had been telling him for a week, I’m going to put you in games. If they’re smothering Julius, and he’s kicking it out and guys are missing, I’m putting you in. Get in there and make shots. His teammates are even telling him when they throw it to him: ‘Shoot it … we know you can shoot it.’”
Willis said he started putting in extra time in the gym this past week, going in at midnight and working out until around 2 a.m.
“I just shoot and think about stuff,” Willis said. “It feels good in the gym. When you’re in the gym alone, it’s like going to church for some people, or talking to a counselor. Maybe it’s just good to think about stuff and how you’re doing. It’s really good for your peace of mind.
“I’m going to start doing it every night, or at least every other night. I don’t sleep too much anyway.”
Willis said it isn’t a struggle to remain patient, and he knows what he needs to do to increase his role in the coming year.
“I need to get my body in the right shape,” he said. “I feel like that’s the thing that limits my playing time. I can’t really deal a lot with the physicality of people. Like, when I practice against Julius, he’s just moving me. Once I get up to par with my weight and strength, I think that will start to play into other stuff, too. I’d like to put on 15 to 20 pounds. That would be great.”
Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks are a versatile, quick, balanced team that plays a fast-paced style akin to that played years ago by then coach Nolan Richardson.
“They drive and attack, a few pick-and-rolls, get it up quick, and go rebound it,” Calipari said. “Defensively, they deny, switch, and trap. They’re active. It will be a test for our team.”
Four Razorbacks score in double figures, led by sophomore guard Michael Qualls at 12.7 points per game.
Bobby Portis, a 6-10 freshman center, leads in rebounding at 6.3 boards per game.
Kentucky owns a 25-9 edge in this series, though the two teams are 6-6 in Fayetteville. Arkansas hammered the Wildcats, 73-60, last season in Fayetteville.
The two teams will play again this season, Feb. 27 at Rupp Arena.