FILM SESSION: The latest Calipari ‘tweak’, and why Derek Willis changed the course of Kentucky’s season

(AP Photo/James Crisp)

Kentucky has had a bit of a roller coaster season.

Early in the year, when they were steam-rolling Duke at the Champions Classic and mowing down buy-game opponents, Kentucky looked like a team that was on their way to competing for a national title.

Then came the loss at UCLA. And the loss to Ohio State. Then they fell at LSU and at Auburn. None of those four teams are destined for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, which begged the question: Can we really trust this Kentucky team? If their front court isn’t getting any better and Skal Labissiere is never going to be the kid that we wanted him to be this season, was it time to adjust our expectations for this group? Was it time to say that simply getting to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament would be a successful season?

And the answer to that question, as we’ve learned in the five weeks since Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl picked off his old nemesis, John Calipari, was a resounding ‘No!’

There have been a couple of changes in the last ten games for the Wildcats, not the least of which is their effort on the defensive side of the ball. Kentucky currently ranks 41st nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, which is good for sixth in the SEC. But if you look at just their performance in league games, the Wildcats are the best defensive team in the SEC.

I’ll take it a step further: Every game the Wildcats have lost this season, they’ve allowed at least 1.00 points-per-possession. They’re 4-7 in those games and 17-0 when they hold opponents under 1.00 PPP. This isn’t exactly breaking news, but when teams get better defensively, they tend to win more games.

Shocking, I know.

But Kentucky’s improvement has been about more than just their effort on defense.

Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have gone from promising-but-inconsistent to the nation’s best back court pairing, and it all stems from a tweak that Coach Cal made after the Auburn loss.

It starts with Derek Willis, a 6-foot-9 combo-forward and in-state recruit that spent the majority of his first two seasons in Lexington as nothing more than a glorified walk-on. He was on scholarship, but his minutes were mostly limited to garbage time; he was the guy that the Rupp Arena crowd would be screaming for when the Wildcats held a 25 point lead with three minutes left.

And while he showed some flashes early on this season — he had 25 points in the season’s first two games, he scored 11 points at UCLA — it wasn’t until the Auburn loss when saw more than 19 minutes of playing time against an opponent not named Albany. He had 12 points and 12 boards in 31 minutes of action against Auburn, which was enough for Cal to roll the dice on him as a starter the next game — at Arkansas — and Willis delivered. He had 12 points and seven boards, hitting 2-for-4 from beyond the arc, and he hasn’t looked back since.

In the last 11 games he’s started (Willis sat out last night’s win over Alabama with an ankle injury), he’s averaging and 10.1 points and shooting 26-for-52 from three, an even 50 percent.

“Putting Derek Willis in the role he’s in has changed us,” Cal said. “Now all of a sudden Derek gives us another stretch guy that you’ve gotta go play with Tyler and Jamal. It lets Isaiah do his thing, it posts up Alex where he should be. It puts us all in the right spots.”

Here’s what Cal is talking about: In this possession from UK’s loss at LSU in early January, take a look at how clogged the lane is. With Isaiah Briscoe, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere on the floor together, there are essentially three guys the defense does not need to worrying about guarding beyond 12-15 feet from the rim. In this example, you can see how Ben Simmons traps Murray off the ball-screen. He knows Craig Victor is there to help on Labissiere’s roll to the rim because Keith Hornsby can play 20 feet off of Briscoe without being worried about getting burned by a three:

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 2.08.50 PM

Here’s the full possession:

Here’s another example, with Briscoe on the same side of the floor as the ball-screen. Texas A&M’s Danuel House (green arrow) is camped out in the paint because he’s (rightfully) more concerned about Marcus Lee rolling to the rim than he is with Briscoe spotting up in the corner:

Briscoe Corner

As you can see, Briscoe bricked the jumper:

It’s different with Willis on the floor. Whether or not he’s actually making threes, it’s the threat of the shot that makes the difference. “You have to really decide how you want to guard those ball-screens,” one SEC coach told “His shooting makes them much harder to guard.”

Here are three examples of what that coach is talking about.

1. Willis sets a ball-screen for Ulis, and with South Carolina icing the screen (meaning forcing the ball-handler away from the screen and towards the baseline), the big has to make sure Ulis doesn’t get a head of steam going to the rim. Willis can then pop into space for a clean look at a three:

Willis pick n pop


2. Defenders are forced to choose between taking away Willis’ jumper and helping on drives. Here, you’ll see a Tennessee defender cutting off Ulis in the paint, meaning that he’s not able to recover when the Kentucky point guard finds his open shooter:

Willis three help

Again, buckets:

3. He’s a threat even when he’s not involved in the play. In this example, which comes out of Kentucky’s ‘Elbow’ series, you see South Carolina’s Chris Silva locked onto Willis’ hip, so when Ulis gets by his defender and sees the weak-side help coming, he’s able to find a cutting Briscoe, who has a wide-open lane to the rim:

Briscoe Layup


Willis’ presence is not the be-all and end-all here. Kentucky’s resurgence wouldn’t be possible without Ulis playing out of his mind or Murray shooting like he’s trying to make Steph Curry jealous. (Can we start calling him Chef Murray yet or nah?)

And it certainly has to be noted that Murray’s role has changed as well. He’s no longer being used as much as a play-maker or simply a spot-up shooter. Cal has him running off of more screens as opposed to just spotting up on the perimeter. To Murray’s credit, he’s fully embraced his role as a shooter. One of the concerns about him entering the season was what position he would play and whether he could accept being off the ball, and he has. Without question. As a result, not only has he become a much more consistent shooter, but he’s cut down on the stupid decisions that he made earlier in the year; when you decision-making process is limited to ‘if you’re open, shoot the ball’, it’s much easier to avoid making mental mistakes.

But the larger point here is that all of that was made possible — or, at the very least, made easier — by Willis’ presence on the perimeter.

Who would’ve thought in November that the most important player on this Kentucky roster was a junior from Bullitt County that had never played a meaningful minute for the Wildcats?

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.