As Cal assesses rotations, Willis forcing himself into mix

Early on, over the summer, Derek Willis was doing what a lot of people expected him to do in his first year at Kentucky: stand on the sidelines and watch.

As former Kentucky players now in the NBA passed through the doors and played pick-up games with some of Willis’ more highly touted teammates, Willis, most of the time, put up shots on a side basket.

“I didn’t play a lot because we’d have pros come back in,” Willis said Thursday. “There wasn’t a lot of space to play.”

The Basics

What: No. 1 Kentucky vs.  Transylvania
When: Friday, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Transylvania
Video: Cal’s press conference
Video: Johnson, Willis excited to play against someone else

Willis, at least by appearances, was blending in with the expectations that were given to him as the seventh-ranked player in UK’s nine-man (and All-American rich) recruiting class. Appearances, though, can be deceiving.

The assumptions and oversight that bothered Willis back in high school when he slid in the rankings from a top-30 prospect to outside the nation’s 100 best players didn’t matter to him anymore. Willis practiced patience during those pick-up games, watched and studied.

When it finally came time for the practice season and Willis got his opportunity to show what he could do, he surprised everyone.

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“My game play is kind of elusive,” Willis said. “They didn’t know what to expect when they played me and then I was like hitting 3s and going around and dunking on them. They didn’t know.”

Coach Cal, for one, didn’t realize Willis was this good, calling him one of the two biggest surprises in preseason practice.

“I think Cal’s expectations definitely changed for me,” Willis said. “He didn’t know how good I was.”

Transy File

Record: 20-8 last year
Head coach: Brian Lane (405-161 at Transy)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Pioneers
Player to watch: Parker Stansberry (8.9 points, 3.4 rebounds last year)
Series history: Tied 7-7
Last meeting: UK won 74-28 on Nov. 5, 2012 (exhibition)

Calipari said no one did.

He didn’t know how good he was,” Calipari said. “He’s playing in the best shape he’s ever been in. He’s more physical than he’s ever been. He’s driving balls through bumps, which I’d never seen him do. And he’s not shooting bailout 3s, like, ‘I’m just going to come down and jack this one.’ He’s playing within how we’re playing. He still scores. He’s rebounding the ball. You would think he’d be physically challenged in some of these practices. He figures out ways.”

After weeks of hearing Calipari talk about how surprisingly good Willis is, the fans saw for themselves Tuesday night at the Blue-White Scrimmage.

Willis, playing on the White team, drilled a game-high five 3-points and grabbed eight rebounds in 36 minutes of play. His 21 points were tied for the second most on either team.

“It felt good that people are recognizing what kind of player I am,” Willis said. “It felt really good.”

Now the question for Calipari becomes: What does he do with Willis? With yet another piece to the puzzle, how will he assemble everything to fit?

“We’ll have to figure it out as we go,” Coach Cal said. “He’s deserving of playing time, but there are a lot of guys deserving of playing time. Now we’ve just got to figure out how it all lays out.”

The next step in the evaluation process comes Friday at 7 p.m. in UK’s first exhibition game of the season. For the first time this year, the practice jerseys will come off and the real uniforms will get put on as the Cats face in-state Transylvania at Rupp Arena.

“We’ve been playing together now for 22 practices, so I think they’re just about ready to put it out there against somebody else,” Calipari said.

It isn’t so much that the Cats are getting tired of each other – though guys like Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson are probably growing weary of beating up on each other, and someone like Alex Poythress would probably like a break from trying to slow down Julius Randle every day in practice. Rather, these guys want to see what it’s like to match their talents with one another instead of against each other.

Derek Willis drilled a game-high five 3-pointers to go along with 21 points and eight rebounds in the Blue-White Scrimmage. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

“It’s going to be scary,” Johnson said. “We go up against each other (every day) and you’re going up against guys the same talent level as you. When you mix us all together, I’m just looking forward to seeing how it looks.”

To a degree, so is Calipari. While he believes competition in practice is what improves players the most, he needs to see how everything is going to fit together when the Cats are going against unfamiliar competition.

One of his biggest challenges this season will be managing a roster full of players who could start at a lot of other schools, but it’s a problem a lot of other coaches would love to have. Calipari has toyed with the idea of playing more guys this year, but he believes he has to eventually settle on a smaller rotation.

“When you have young guys trying to figure each other out, you can’t keep throwing more to the mix,” Calipari said. “You got to figure out these six or seven. That group’s got to get good. It’s not just throwing – you can’t do it that way. How I figure that out, part of it is in practice. Part of it’s going to be in these games.”

Whether or not Willis will be in that rotation remains to be seen, but he’s inserted himself into the mix with his play in practice and his eye-opening performance at the Blue-White Scrimmage. The next few games and weeks could go a long ways in determining whether or not he will get to build on those expectations.

“(The rotation is) not a blank slate,” Calipari said. “Obviously, you saw us scrimmage and I kind of threw a group out there that I thought should be playing together, and then all of a sudden Dominique (Hawkins) and Derek play out of their minds.

“Now what happens is, it’s all good in practice and drills and all that, but when you put people in the seats and it’s on television to 10 states and there’s 15,000 fans it sets the Guinness World Book of Records (mark for scrimmage attendance), that you now see who performs when the numbers are on the back and the lights are on.”

Andrew Harrison out for Transy

As Coach Cal announced on his social media channels after practice, Andrew Harrison is out for Friday’s exhibition game with a bone bruise. Harrison sat out the second half of the Blue-White Scrimmage to rest the knee.

“He’s got to take time,” Calipari said.

With Andrew Harrison out, his twin brother, Aaron, will likely get the nod at point. Aaron Harrison played well at the point guard position Tuesday, dishing out six assists in addition to 19 points.

“It’s giving us a chance to look at James Young playing both the two and the three,” Calipari said. “Now it gives us a chance to maybe put other guys at the three, try Julius at the three.”

After sitting through a season like last year where a single injury often derailed the Cats’ basic five-on-five practice routine, this roster is equipped to deal with injuries and foster opportunities.

“One guy’s misery is another guy’s blessing,” Calipari said.