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?

Purdue’s Edey returning to school at NBA draft deadline; Kentucky’s Tshiebwe stays in

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Purdue’s Zach Edey decided it was the right call to go back to school instead of staying in the NBA draft. His predecessor as national player of the year, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, is sticking with his pro pursuit.

And Connecticut’s reign as NCAA champion will begin with multiple starters having left for the NBA draft and one returning after flirting with doing the same.

The 7-foot-4 Edey and UConn guard Tristen Newton were among the notable names to announce that they were withdrawing from the draft, the NCAA’s deadline for players who declared as early entrants to pull out and retain their college eligibility.

Edey’s decision came in social media posts from both the center and the Boilermakers program that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament behind Edey, The Associated Press men’s national player of the year.

But Tshiebwe announced late in the afternoon that he would remain in the draft after a college career that included being named the AP national player of the year in 2022.

For the current champions, Newton (10.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds) is returning after being one of four Huskies to declare for the draft after a run to UConn’s fifth national championship in early April. He scored a game-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds in the victory over San Diego State in the title game.

The others were Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, wing Jordan Hawkins and versatile guard Andre Jackson Jr. Sanogo (17.8 points) and Hawkins (16.3) have made it clear they have closed the door on their college careers, while team spokesman Phil Chardis said that Jackson (6.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists) would remain in the draft.

The Huskies have 247sports’ No. 3-ranked recruiting class for next year to restock the roster, led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Stephon Castle.

The NBA’s withdrawal deadline is June 12, but is moot when it comes to college players returning to school due to the NCAA’s earlier timeline to retain playing eligibility.


TREY ALEXANDER: Creighton gets back a 6-4 guard who averaged 13.6 points and shot 41% from 3-point range in his first full season as a starter.

ADEM BONA: The 6-foot-10 forward and Pac-12 freshman of the year is returning to UCLA after starting 32 games as a rookie and averaging 7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks – with coach Mick Cronin praising his toughness for “competing through multiple injuries for as long as he could” in a statement Wednesday.

EDEY: He averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.7% from the field. His presence alone helps Purdue be a factor in the Big Ten race.

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: The 6-6 guard went through the NBA G League Combine and had workouts with multiple teams before opting to return to Tennessee for a fifth season alongside teammate Santiago Vescovi.

JUDAH MINTZ: The 6-3 freshman averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 assists for Syracuse, ranking third among Division I freshmen in scoring behind only Alabama’s Brandon Miller and Lamar’s Nate Calmese.

OWLS’ RETURNEES: Florida Atlantic got good news after its surprise Final Four run with the return leading scorers Johnell Davis (13.8) and Alijah Martin (13.4). ESPN first reported their decisions, while Martin later posted a social media statement.

TERRENCE SHANNON JR.: Illinois got a big boost with Shannon announcing his night in a social media post. The 6-6 guard is returning for a fifth college season after averaging 17.2 points.

SPARTANS’ RETURNEES: Michigan State announced that guards Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard have withdrawn from the NBA draft. Standout guard Tyson Walker had previously withdrawn in April, setting up Tom Izzo to have five of his top scorers back.


KOBE BROWN: Missouri’s 6-8 swingman opted against returning for a fifth college season after being an AP first-team all-Southeastern Conference pick averaging 15.8 points last season.

JAYLEN CLARK: The third-year UCLA guard averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while leading the Pac-12 with 2.6 steals en route to being named Naismith national defensive player of the year. Cronin called him a winner with strong intangibles who made UCLA “a better program because he chose to be a Bruin.”

BRICE SENSABAUGH: The Ohio State freshman averaged 16.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 games before missing his final two in the Big Ten Tournament due to a knee injury. He’s a potential first-round prospect.

TSHIEBWE: The 6-9, 260-pound forward is a tough interior presence who led the country in rebounds for two straight seasons (15.1 in 2022, 13.7 in 2023) while racking up 48 double-doubles. But he faces an uncertain next stop and is projected at best as a second-round prospect.

North Carolina transfer Caleb Love commits to Arizona

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Caleb Love is now headed to Arizona.

The North Carolina transfer tweeted, less than a month after decommitting from Michigan, that he will play next season with the Wildcats.

“Caleb is a tremendously talented guard who has significant experience playing college basketball at a high level,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said in a statement. “We look forward to helping Caleb grow his game at Arizona. And as we near the completion of the roster for the upcoming season, we feel great about how everything has come together. Now it’s time for the real work to start.”

A 6-foot-4 guard, Love averaged 14.6 points and 3.3 assists in three seasons at North Carolina. He averaged 17.6 points in seven NCAA Tournament games, helping lead the Tar Heels to the 2022 national championship game.

Love entered the transfer portal after leading North Carolina with 73 3-pointers as a junior and initially committed to Michigan. He decommitted from the Wolverines earlier this month, reportedly due to an admissions issue involving academic credits.

Love narrowed his transfer targets to three schools before choosing to play at Arizona over Gonzaga and Texas.

Love will likely start on a team that will have dynamic perimeter players, including Pelle Larsson, Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley.

Biden celebrates LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams at separate White House events


WASHINGTON – All of the past drama and sore feelings associated with Louisiana State’s invitation to the White House were seemingly forgotten or set aside Friday as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the championship women’s basketball team to the mansion with smiles, hugs and lavish praise all around.

The visit had once appeared in jeopardy after Jill Biden suggested that the losing Iowa team be invited, too. But none of that was mentioned as both Bidens heralded the players for their performance and the way they have helped advance women’s sports.

“Folks, we witnessed history,” the president said. “In this team, we saw hope, we saw pride and we saw purpose. It matters.”

The ceremony was halted for about 10 minutes after forward Sa’Myah Smith appeared to collapse as she and her teammates stood behind Biden. A wheelchair was brought in and coach Kim Mulkey assured the audience that Smith was fine.

LSU said in a statement that Smith felt overheated, nauseous and thought she might faint. She was evaluated by LSU and White House medical staff and was later able to rejoin the team. “She is feeling well, in good spirits, and will undergo further evaluation once back in Baton Rouge,” the LSU statement said.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, Biden said, more than half of all college students are women, and there are now 10 times more female athletes in college and high school. He said most sports stories are still about men, and that that needs to change.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

“Folks, we need to support women sports, not just during the championship run but during the entire year,” President Biden said.

After the Tigers beat Iowa for the NCAA title in April in a game the first lady attended, she caused an uproar by suggesting that the Hawkeyes also come to the White House.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE” and said she would prefer to visit with former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, instead. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

Nothing came of Jill Biden’s idea and the White House only invited the Tigers. Reese ultimately said she would not skip the White House visit. She and co-captain Emily Ward presented team jerseys bearing the number “46” to Biden and the first lady. Hugs were exchanged.

Jill Biden also lavished praise on the team, saying the players showed “what it means to be a champion.”

“In this room, I see the absolute best of the best,” she said, adding that watching them play was “pure magic.”

“Every basket was pure joy and I kept thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” the first lady added, noting that she grew up before Title IX was passed. “We’ve made so much progress and we still have so much more work to do.”

The president added that “the way in which women’s sports has come along is just incredible. It’s really neat to see, since I’ve got four granddaughters.”

After Smith was helped to a wheelchair, Mulkey told the audience the player was OK.

“As you can see, we leave our mark where we go,” Mulkey joked. “Sa’Myah is fine. She’s kind of, right now, embarrassed.”

A few members of Congress and Biden aides past and present with Louisiana roots dropped what they were doing to attend the East Room event, including White House budget director Shalanda Young. Young is in the thick of negotiations with House Republicans to reach a deal by the middle of next week to stave off what would be a globally calamitous U.S. financial default if the U.S. can no longer borrow the money it needs to pay its bills.

The president, who wore a necktie in the shade of LSU’s purple, said Young, who grew up in Baton Rouge, told him, “I’m leaving the talks to be here.” Rep. Garret Graves, one of the House GOP negotiators, also attended.

Biden closed sports Friday by changing to a blue tie and welcoming the UConn’s men’s championship team for its own celebration. The Huskies won their fifth national title by defeating San Diego State, 76-59, in April.

“Congratulations to the whole UConn nation,” he said.

Marquette’s Prosper says he will stay in draft rather than returning to school

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MILWAUKEE — Olivier-Maxence Prosper announced he is keeping his name under NBA draft consideration rather than returning to Marquette.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decision.

“Thank you Marquette nation, my coaches, my teammates and support staff for embracing me from day one,” Prosper said in an Instagram post. “My time at Marquette has been incredible. With that being said, I will remain in the 2023 NBA Draft. I’m excited for what comes next. On to the next chapter…”

Prosper had announced last month he was entering the draft. He still could have returned to school and maintained his college eligibility by withdrawing from the draft by May 31. Prosper’s announcement indicates he instead is going ahead with his plans to turn pro.

Prosper averaged 12.5 points and 4.7 rebounds last season while helping Marquette go 29-7 and win the Big East’s regular-season and tournament titles. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

He played two seasons at Marquette after transferring from Clemson, where he spent one season.

Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. returning for last season of eligibility

kansas mccullar
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Kevin McCullar Jr. said that he will return to Kansas for his final year of eligibility, likely rounding out a roster that could make the Jayhawks the preseason No. 1 next season.

McCullar transferred from Texas Tech to Kansas for last season, when he started 33 of 34 games and averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds. He was also among the nation’s leaders in steals, and along with being selected to the Big 12’s all-defensive team, the 6-foot-6 forward was a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award.

“To be able to play in front of the best fans in the country; to play for the best coach in the nation, I truly believe we have the pieces to hang another banner in the Phog,” McCullar said in announcing his return.

Along with McCullar, the Jayhawks return starters Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams from a team that went 28–8, won the Big 12 regular-season title and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Arkansas in the second round.

Perhaps more importantly, the Jayhawks landed Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, widely considered the best player in the portal, to anchor a lineup that was missing a true big man. They also grabbed former five-star prospect Arterio Morris, who left Texas, and Towson’s Nick Timberlake, who emerged last season as one of the best 3-point shooters in the country.

The Jayhawks also have an elite recruiting class arriving that is headlined by five-star recruit Elmarko Jackson.

McCullar declared for the draft but, after getting feedback from scouts, decided to return. He was a redshirt senior last season, but he has another year of eligibility because part of his career was played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a big day for Kansas basketball,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “Kevin is not only a terrific player but a terrific teammate. He fit in so well in year one and we’re excited about what he’ll do with our program from a leadership standpoint.”