MEMPHIS, Tenn. — All eyes will be on the backcourt battle between De’Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball, but Derek Willis versus T.J. Leaf could be a sneaky-good matchup to watch as Kentucky and UCLA vie for an Elite Eight spot Friday night.
It’ll be the second meeting between the teams. In the first, Leaf was a breakout star for the Bruins. A 6-foot-10 freshman, Leaf had 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting and hauled in 13 rebounds in UCLA’s December win at Rupp Arena.
“He killed us on the backboard,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Thursday. “It wasn’t just what he did, but he was more physical than we had expected. That includes our staff, too.”
More physical than Kentucky expected — better than Kentucky expected.
“I don’t want to say I took him for granted, I just didn’t know all the things he could do,” Willis said. “And he kind of surprised me in a sense.”
But Leaf wasn’t exactly under the radar. A California native, he was ranked 18th nationally in the 2016 recruiting class, according to 247Sports. He leads the Bruins with 16.2 points per game and is second on the team with 8.2 rebounds per game.
His freshman season has likely parlayed him into a first-round NBA draft pick. Leaf is projected to go No. 22 overall by Draft Express — eight spots higher than Kentucky freshman forward Bam Adebayo.
“T.J.’s a great freshman, too,” Kentucky freshman Malik Monk said. “We can’t leave him out like we did the first game.”
And while Leaf excelled, Willis far from struggled in the first matchup. He had 11 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists against the Bruins.
Leaf remembered his forward counterpart.
“He’s really talented, can shoot the ball, can defend multiple positions,” Leaf said of Willis. “He can drive it, he’s pretty athletic. Anyone you play on their team is gonna be really talented.”
Willis will have a better idea what to expect from Leaf at 9:39 p.m. ET on Friday. Willis, the senior who isn’t expected to get drafted, guarding Leaf — the freshman future first-round pick.
And it’s the looming expiration date on his college career that motivates Willis.
“I feel like I’m more desperate now,” Willis said. “This is the last postseason in my college career. I want to make the most of it.”