By LARRY VAUGHT
Coming off his first double-double at Kentucky, Derek Willis came back Thursday at Arkansas with 12 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and one steal in 35 minutes. He was 5-for-8 from the field in UK’s 80-66 win.
Willis did his best to stay humble and credited others for his play.
“I just want to stay consistent. That’s the thing. I mean, my dad – I hate to bring up my dad in the media, but honestly he’s the one that’s pushing me toward this. Him and my girlfriend. He said, ‘The first game you had against Auburn, it was an amazing game and you played really well. But what’s really going to keep you going is the next game and the next game.’ So I’m just trying to play consistent and do what I can and just hope for the best,” said Willis.
Willis has said time after time that he wants to please those who have supported him the most more than he wants to succeed himself.
He says his father’s message to him never changed even the last two years when he was not playing regularly.
“The message was always positive. Stay positive, just keep working hard. Eventually things are going to fall into place. They’re starting to get there. So I’m just taking it slowly and hoping for the best and that’s about it,” Willis said after Thursday’s game.
“I just take it for what it is. I just want to make him happy and I want to make people in the state of Kentucky happy and all the fans. That’s what I play for or else I probably wouldn’t play this game, honestly, anymore.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari has been hard on Willis, but promised after his play in last week’s loss at Auburn that he would get more playing time. He rewarded him with a start Thursday night.
“He earned it. I didn’t give it to him. He earned it how he played at Auburn. Then he earned it in two days of practice. He was the leading rebounder in two days of practice,” Calipari said. “I thought in the first half he was a little tentative and I got on him. Because he had two tipped-back balls that he fumbled for no reason. No one was near him. And I got on him at halftime and he came out and performed, which tells me he’s building his own confidence. I can’t take it away from him.”
For Calipari, that’s probably the best compliment he has given Willis or could ever give a player.