Who would have thought Derek Willis might be the key to a successful basketball season in 2015-16? I doubt that in early November you could have found anyone outside the Willis family that would have thought he would be one of the major keys to the Wildcats success and a number 1 standing in the SEC. But that is the case.
Since Coach Cal inserted Willis into the starting lineup this Kentucky Wildcat team has been a renewed group. Except for a bad twenty-five minute stretch in Knoxville against the Vols, Kentucky has played really good and at times they have been great.
What Willis has given the Wildcats is an excellent three-point shooter, good rebounding, stable ball handling and adequate defense. In the ten games that Willis has been in the starting lineup, he is averaging nearly 12 points per game and over the last ten games he has averaged 7.2 rebounds per game. The Cats are also 8-2 in games that Willis has started.
The 6-foot-9 junior forward came in with the 2013 heralded recruiting class of Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, Dakari Johnson and James Young. Willis and fellow Kentucky native Dominique Hawkins were not expected to contribute much, but both have now surprised critiques and have made major contributions over the last three years. Hawkins has played important minutes over his career, but Willis pretty much slept walked through the first two and a half years in Lexington before breaking out of his shell and showing his many basketball skills.
The Mt. Washington, Kentucky native says he chose his jersey number (35) because his favorite player is Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant. With the seven three-pointers Willis made against Tennessee, he is emulating Durant in more ways than just Jersey numbers. Only three other players during the Calipari era have made at least seven three-point shots in a game. The others are Eric Bledsoe, Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer; not bad company to be in.
Willis has been shattering his personal best performances this year. His first double-double came at Auburn were he had 12 points and a career high 12 rebounds. But his best game to date was probably against Missouri were he had a then career-high 18 points, which included four three-pointers and tied his career high of 12 rebounds. On Thursday he set a new career high with 25 points in an 80-70 victory over Tennessee. He is the first Kentucky native UK player to have at least six rebounds in seven consecutive SEC games since Winston Bennett did it during the 1987-88 season. This is quite impressive.
Willis is a two-time All-SEC Academic Honor Roll performer and is now performing on the basketball court the way he has been performing in the classroom. His performance over the last month has been outstanding.