- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Derek Willis’ hope of getting into the rotation at Kentucky required a lot of patience during a two-year wait for minutes behind a glut of NBA-caliber talent.

Right now, the 6-foot-9 junior is making teammates wait behind him as he makes the most of his opportunity starting for the No. 22 Wildcats. Willis has averaged 10.8 points and 8.1 rebounds over the past eight games with seven straight starts for Kentucky (18-6, 8-3 Southeastern Conference). In fact, his 131 points over the past 16 games are nearly double the 77 he scored in his previous 40 appearances for the Wildcats.

“It’s just having more confidence in my mindset,” said Willis, who’s averaging 7.3 points after scoring just over one per contest the previous two years.

“I always thought I had the skill set and I always had knowledge of the game, but it was just a thing of where I really didn’t have confidence. Sitting two years, it was just weird for me.”

More important for Kentucky is the versatility provided by the Mt. Washington, Kentucky, native. Willis has made his presence felt with improved rebounding, which is no small matter with senior forward Alex Poythress out for two weeks with a right knee injury. Willis has even thrown down a few nasty dunks in traffic, another sign of his confidence.

Tuesday’s 82-48 rout of Georgia also showcased his increasing role in the Wildcats’ offense. He took Kentucky’s first three 3-point attempts and made two, opening things up for freshman guard Jamal Murray as tandem shot a combined 9 of 17 from long range in the game.

Add Willis’ developing perimeter defense and he fits the definition of a “stretch-4,” a big man comfortable playing outside. He won’t say if he has settled in at power forward but adds, “I’m just trying to do the things to stay there, honestly.”

Either way, Kentucky coach John Calipari likes the added dimension Willis provides.

“He gives you another player on the floor that will stretch the defense,” Calipari said. “He doesn’t even have to make every shot; he just has to be prepared to shoot them.”

Willis scored in double figures in Kentucky’s first two games and again in a loss at UCLA but seemed to be a different player on both ends in last month’s loss at Auburn. He recorded his first career double-double with 12 points and a career-high 12 rebounds, scoring 12 again in a win at Arkansas that included seven boards and a career-high four blocks.

Willis’ career best followed against Missouri, an 18-point, 12-rebound game that symbolized the potential Calipari suggested was possible for him early in his career. On the other hand, the coach noted the difficulty of him cracking a rotation with 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles.

The departures of that trio to the NBA created an opportunity for Willis to get the playing time he always wanted. He has been making the most of those minutes with double-figure scoring or rebounding efforts - or both.

Calipari believes Willis will need to attack the glass even more aggressively Saturday at South Carolina (21-3, 8-3 SEC), a challenge Willis just might be able to meet.

“I’m glad this is happening for him because I knew he had the capability to be a great player that he is right now,” guard Dominique Hawkins said. “He’s helping us out a whole lot on the offensive end and rebounding.”

Note: Calipari said Murray did not practice Thursday after injuring his knee in the Georgia game but was hopeful that he could play on Saturday.

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