Scout/Jeff Drummond

Dominated by UCLA's T.J. Leaf in December, Kentucky Wildcats' Derek Willis feels better about rematch

Kentucky senior motivated after being dominated by Bruins' freshman forward in first matchup.

December 3rd is not a day that Derek Willis looks back on fondly. 

That's when UCLA came to Lexington and handed Kentucky a loss at Rupp Arena for only the fifth time in 129 games under Wildcats coach John Calipari, and Willis' defensive assignment for long stretches that day -- Bruins freshman forward T.J. Leaf -- had a breakout performance with 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in a 97-92 victory. 

"I think back in the fall or whenever we played them, I kind of like -- I don't want to say I took him for granted -- I just didn't know all the things he could do," Willis said prior to the Wildcats' rematch with the Bruins on Friday in the South Region semifinals at FedExForum in Memphis. "He kind of surprised me in a sense."

Willis was not alone. 

"He was more physical than we had expected," Calipari said of the 6-foot-10, 225-pound Leaf. "... That includes our staff, too, now.

"Again, we knew (the Bruins) were good. We didn't know how good they were. And I think a lot of teams in the country did not realize how good they were, how good their personnel is, how well they play together, how fit... If you don't think they're physical, you're wrong. They're physical. So they're a terrific basketball team."

Willis, one of three seniors on the Kentucky roster, didn't exactly play poorly in the first meeting with UCLA. He came off the bench to score 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting from the field. 

That was, however, also a time during the season when opponents were constantly targeting him on UK's defensive end of the floor. 

Fast-forward four months, and Willis has changed his profile from defensive liability to occasional game-changer. He has 17 blocked shots and six steals over his last seven games.

"I feel like we're peaking at the right time," Willis said. "We're playing really well, and a lot of us are playing the best basketball we've ever played."

The same can be said for Leaf. The McDonald's All-American, who was ranked No. 22 overall in the Class of 2016 by Scout, is averaging 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game for UCLA (31-4). That kind of productivity has made him a potential first-round pick in this year's NBA Draft.

Leaf is shooting 61.6 percent from the field, 68.6 percent at the line and 45.6 percent (26 of 57) from beyond the 3-point arc. He's a player who must be accounted for anywhere on the court. 

It's a daunting task, but Willis is looking forward to a second chance. 

"It'll be a fun game tomorrow," he said.

The realization that any game from here on out may also be his last in a UK uniform almost motivates Willis.

“I feel like I’m more desperate now,” he said. “This is the last postseason of my college career, so I want to make the most of it. I'm more locked in, more focused.”


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