LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari sounded a few weeks ago like he’d just about given up trying to fix forward Derek Willis’ defense. “He’s a senior!” the Kentucky coach yelped. Translation: After four years, Willis established exactly the kind of player he is, and that isn’t changing.
So, 91 games into his career and coming off a 16-point outburst against Tennessee, what is Willis to Calipari?
“A guy that if you put in and he’s really on, you leave him in there. And if he’s really not, you’ll know right away and, ‘You’re out,’ ” Calipari said. “Like, yesterday (in practice) he did some stuff and I’m like, ‘You can’t do this to your team. They have to know they can count on you. You cannot do what you’re doing over here.’ So sometimes he goes in and out.
“You know, I’d like him to be more consistent, but at some point you gotta say, ‘Here’s who he is. Now, how do we do this? How do we get the best out of him, being this is who he is?’ ”
The 6-foot-9 Willis started 6 games this season, averaging 20 minutes, 7.2 points and 4.5 rebounds for the No. 13 Wildcats (21-5, 11-2 SEC). He scored in double figures 9 times and made 39 percent of his 3-point attempts — including his first 4 against the Volunteers on Tuesday night.
Willis is a valuable piece, but a somewhat unreliable one. Calipari mixes and matches Willis and 6-9 freshman Wenyen Gabriel, who also has limitations. Neither is a defensive stalwart, but Gabriel is a more productive rebounder and an energetic presence.
“And if they’re not performing, I’ll go with Mychal (Mulder) at the 4,” Calipari said. Mulder, a 6-4 senior wing, averages 5.8 points and 11.3 minutes off the bench.
In other words, as the NCAA Tournament rapidly approaches, Kentucky’s coach has a hot-hand policy with his collection of flawed options at forward.
Next for Calipari’s Wildcats: Saturday’s trip to Georgia. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET. TV: ESPN.