LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari has not exactly been subtle about what he views as Kentucky basketball’s biggest vulnerability this season. Opponents have attacked and exploited it when the Wildcats are on defense. The “four” position, manned by Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel, is problem.
Calipari has been busy throughout Camp Cal — the weeks between semesters when practice time is unrestricted — trying to patch that hole. Both 6-foot-9 forwards provide positives: the freshman Gabriel has intensity, the senior Willis (usually) has a sweet 3-point stroke. They’re each good rebounders.
“The biggest word with those two is the word trust,” Calipari said Monday. “Your teammates have to trust that you’re going to do the job you’re supposed to do. And if they can’t trust you, it’s hard to keep you on the floor.”
That is mostly a defensive issue for Willis and Gabriel — more so the latter — and it cuts both ways. To do their jobs effectively, they also have to trust that teammates are doing theirs. Play within the scheme, don’t freelance and don’t try to be a hero.
“If you don’t believe you can trust your teammates, then you probably can’t be trusted,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘You gotta do stuff and trust your teammates are going to have your back, and you’re going to do your job. Whether it be pick-and-roll, post defense, trapping, how we’re playing certain screens … just letting them know, ‘We gotta trust you. If we don’t trust you, we have no team.’ ”
Willis made bigger strides than the rookie Gabriel. The senior had nine rebounds in each of the past two games and put together a solid defensive effort last week at Ole Miss. But expending that extra effort seems to have hurt his offensive contribution.
After shooting 50 percent from 3-point range in SEC play last season and getting off to a decent start this season, Willis has made just 2 of 9 3-point tries the past two games.
“Derek’s not as bad” as Gabriel defensively, Calipari said. “Derek’s gotten better. His thing is, ‘I’m focusing so much on defense and rebounding, I can’t make a shot.’ Because I thought he was better last game, really was.”
Willis said his recent slump has gotten him back in the gym for extra shooting and he’s pondering some additional conditioning, because maybe playing defense at a higher level is “getting into my legs or something.” But he’s hoping, after consecutive road trips, that Tuesday night’s game against Texas A&M in the comfortable confines of Rupp Arena will get him back on track.
He’s also heard Calipari’s message about trust loud and clear.
“He’s been on Wenyen a lot about it in practice,” Willis said. “I don’t want to say we don’t trust each other, but on the court I don’t think we communicate efficiently at times. That’s where we get a little discombobulated.”
Gabriel, who has produced a 10-point, 10-rebound, 6-assist game already this season, has certainly shown flashes. The former 5-star recruit is plenty talented and craves greatness, but he’s also a raw, bean pole of a prospect whose legs look bendable straws.
“That’s a big part of it. He’s playing against some older, veteran, stronger players, so he gets moved out of the way physically from time to time,” assistant coach Tony Barbee said. “But for Wenyen, it’s not a want-to (issue). He’s got a motor that just won’t stop. Sometimes physically he can’t get to where he wants to be, but he’s improving every single day. I mean, he’s improved night and day from when he stepped on campus.
“So if you project him out, if he continues at this rate, he’s going to be a fantastic player. Wenyen’s had his moments, but he’s a typical freshman: he’s going to be up and down. You just expect more out of our freshmen.”
And so does Calipari, because that’s the nature of this beast he’s created at Kentucky. Every team he coaches here has been young, meaning plenty of growing pains. This one is among his youngest yet with four freshman starters.
The other three almost immediately took flight, and now Calipari has to find a way to nudge (shove?) Gabriel forward.
“That’s my job,” he said. “And I’ll be honest with you, I’m getting tired … physically tired, because I’m really having to hold these guys accountable and I’m having to be on them, because it’s the only way I’m going to help them create discipline, create habits they have to have, is hold them accountable in the practices. We’ve done a lot more scrimmaging; I don’t know if it’s going to help, but it’s the best way to teach.
“I just don’t let them play through mistakes. I’ll stop them and say, ‘That’s not good enough. That’s not what you’re supposed to do. I can’t trust you if you’re not doing your job.’ So basically that’s been our approach.”
As conference play cranks up, classes resume and Camp Cal comes to a close, we’ll find out soon whether the message is getting through.