LEXINGTON, Ky. — Derek Willis’ mind had been on defense, and while the offense was beginning to lag, the Kentucky senior balanced the two Saturday night as his quick stroke returned.
The senior stretch forward was dialed in as the Cats raced by Arkansas 97-71 in Rupp Arena. Willis recorded 15 points on 6 of 8 shooting, including a 3 of 5 mark from behind the 3-point line. Willis had been in a slight slump heading into the game as his increased effort on the defensive end had been taking him away from what he does best.
“I just feel like I was so focused on playing defense and rebounding and trying to do all those things right, which I improved on a lot, that it kind of, focusing on that takes away from your offense game a little bit, too,” Willis said after the game. “I was working a lot harder than I ever had on defense so I think it could’ve been a conditioning thing where my legs weren’t used to it and it affected my shot.”
But the improved defensive play is what kept Willis on the floor for long stretches — 19 minutes Saturday night. Coach John Calipari said he was “outstanding,” and noted his rebounding and defensive efforts — ever Willis’ weaknesses.
And perhaps it just took a game against Arkansas to get the 6-foot-9 shooter going. He finished with 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting and a pair of threes last season in Fayetteville. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson hadn’t forgotten.
“Derek Willis: the guy that keeps haunting us,” Anderson said. “Last year he haunted us at Bud Walton Arena, and tonight he haunted us as well. He’s one of those stretch guys, and it just seems like I go and watch games and he don’t shoot it like that, but when the Razorbacks show up, he lights it up.”
Willis’ 15 points tied his season high set in the opener against Stephen F. Austin. His trio of treys were his most of the season.
Willis said he worked with assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Joel Justus to correct a few things with his shot. He said he was “leaning back a lot” and needed to get back in a routine.
And as Willis got it working, Kentucky’s offense cranked into high gear.
“When Derek’s going it’s like everything clicks with us,” freshman Bam Adebayo said. “Derek’s making shots, we’re getting post feeds, they dig and we kick it out to Derek — it’s a three. That was easy offense without even running a play.”
The Cats are crushing SEC competition to a 30.3 average margin of victory in their 3-0 SEC start. Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe and Adebayo are the mainstay weapons, but Kentucky becomes nearly unstoppable when role players like Willis step up.
“If anybody knows Derek, he’s had rollercoaster rides since he’s been here,” Fox said. “Right now he’s going up and we’re trying to keep him on that slope.”