By LARRY VAUGHT
Not only did Derek Willis hit his first shot Saturday, he hit his first five Saturday night against Arkansas.
For a player who had been struggling with his shot and confidence, there could not have been a better way to start a game — especially when UK’s leading scorer, Malik Monk, was struggling to score. Willis finished with 15 points, including three 3-pointers, and five rebounds in the 97-71 win.
“I feel like all shooters kind of go through a slump of some sort. That’s just where I was trying to play better defense and rebound and focus on that while I came out of it,” said Willis. “Tonight, I felt comfortable shooting. I’ve been doing different things, getting in the gym, getting more shots up, trying not to fall back, I guess. At least that’s what I’ve been told, leaning back a lot.”
Willis said he spent time with assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Joel Justus working on his shot and getting into more of a routine each time he would catch the ball and shoot.
“I feel I kind of fell out of that where I was so focused on defense and rebounding and trying to add that to be a more complete player,” Willis said. “This was a good game to have. For the past games, I feel like I did good stuff and rebounded well.
“So I was happy with myself on that aspect, but it was really frustrating where I would be open and I was bricking shots. It was really getting on my nerves. I just got in the gym a little bit more and I came through today. So I’m pretty happy with that.”
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson was not as happy. He had seen Willis have the same type game against his team last season.
“The guy that keeps haunting us. 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,” Anderson said.
Calipari liked the shooting, but he was happier with other things.
“I thought Derek Willis was outstanding, getting better defensively, getting better rebounding the ball,” Calipari said.
With the way Calipari had been harping on Willis, the Kentucky senior had tried to focus on defense and rebounding. While Willis thought he was getting better on both, he knew his offense slipped. He also knew Kentucky needed him to make shots.
“I was working a lot harder than I ever have before on defense and so I think it could have been a little bit of a conditioning thing where my legs weren’t really used to it and affected my shot and I reverted back to old habits. I think it’s just a thing of just being in the gym more and being more comfortable and all that,” he said.