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Why is Derek Willis Getting “The Treatment”?

Derek Willis got called out by his coach on national TV, while Dominique Hawkins has suddenly become “the missing factor.”

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t get out of my mind the way John Calipari bit off the interview question about Derek Willis’ two three-point baskets just before halftime of the Mississippi State game.

The ESPN sideline reporter, an earnest and well-meaning Shannon Spake, said, "You must have gotten a lift from those two Derek Willis shots." And Cal just stared her into dust, with one of his "do you even watch the game?" smirks.

"Yeah," Calipari blurted, before she had even punctuated her sentence, "and then he gave up a three at this end," and, to quote Chief Marge Gunderson of the Fargo police department, he fled the interview.

Derek Willis has been a subject of interest ever since he came onto the UK campus three years ago, way disproportionate to the number of minutes he’s played.

Maybe it’s because he’s a local kid. Maybe there are . . . "other factors."

He came to UK with one of those typically heralded freshman groups: Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, James Young and the Harrisons. He barely got a mention from the national media. But when I went to an early-season game at Rupp that year, much of the talk in the stands around me was Cal’s suggestion that he might give Willis some playing time that afternoon.

He didn’t that afternoon. He didn’t that whole season. And he didn’t the next season, though Willis shined in the highlight videos of the trip to the Bahamas. Of course, Trey Lyles didn’t play on that trip, and once Lyles returned it was hard to make much of a case for playing Willis on a team that won 38 straight games and couldn’t even given Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns sufficient playing time.

But this year came his opportunity, especially since too many of Kentucky’s other bigs have failed to step up consistently. Willis is big, he appears strong and in shape, he can leap and has moves around the basket, plus his outstanding outside threat.

He is getting his playing time, of course. But he seems on a very short leash. And worse than all that, Calipari never praises and is quick to criticize.

I’ve said before that we’re not at practice, so we don’t know what Willis does or doesn’t do, says or doesn't say, or what Cal sees and thinks or how he feels. There was much public speculation before this season began about Willis maybe transferring someplace where he could play more. Willis denied that intention, but his comments didn’t deny a certain dissatisfaction or impatience.

Maybe Calipari has resented him for that.

Cal said, after the desultory performance against Mississippi State, that the missing ingredient was Dominique Hawkins. Really? On a team that’s loaded in the backcourt, at least, Hawkins had played in only eight of 10 games prior to his breakout performance against Louisville, averaging only about 8½ minutes in those games. He’s a tough and energetic ball hawk and one of the most decent-seeming kids to play at Kentucky in the last seven years. But the missing ingredient? He played just eight minutes in the loss to UCLA, two in the loss to Ohio State. When Cal had him, he didn’t seem overly enthusiastic about using him.

The Willis thing reminds me of an earlier coolness Calipari had with Josh Harrellson, and I don’t want to make too much about the obvious similarity.

Cal took exception to Harrellson’s public tweets about unfair treatment, and there was a sense that Cal thought Josh was lazy and too happy to sit outside and pop threes. In fact, there was a sort of sameness about Harrellson’s and Willis’ games.

Harrellson eventually worked hard, got in shape, turned Cal around and had a major impact on that team’s memorable Final Four run. He wouldn’t have gotten the chance, though, if the NCAA had let Enes Kanter play.

Willis has a similar chance, with Skal’s struggles, Poythress’ inconsistency and Lee’s lack of any offensive game. And if he’s not stepping up to the challenge for any reason, then he doesn’t deserve more time than he’s getting.

But does he deserve the very public wrath he’s getting from his coach? Even if he does, it’s just not sitting well with me.