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Kentucky Wildcats' Hopes Involve Moving the Pieces Around

New combinations of new people in new roles has provided a nice little winning streak. Only about a dozen games to go – or more if UK makes another deep run in March.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It's always dangerous to write about this Kentucky team, either good or bad. Because, whichever way you go, the next game can make you look stupid.

But I'm going to take the approach that this is a team righting itself, that the Arkansas and Vanderbilt games showed some real progress, progress that will build on itself.

And it's due, I think, to the slightest of changes. A lot of Kentucky fans got on the Derek Willis bandwagon, me included, though I think that was as much hope as conviction. He isn't Instant Superstar, and nobody should expect him to be. He may go on to have a couple of 20-10 nights, and then he may flame out in occasional 1-for-10 three-point efforts.

But it's not his three-point shooting that has suddenly put the balance in the Wildcat attack. It's his threat of being a three-point shooter.

Before, UK had a frontcourt of Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee. What do you do with that frontcourt? Lee has to be in the block, it's the only place he has a semblance of game. You can't have him in the corner.

And if he's underneath, what does that do to Poythress' contribution. Alex is at his best taking his man in and, whether through a graceful spin or a powerful shoulder, get in a good position to shoot - his feathery hooks or his quick-step layups off the board. But if Lee's already there, and the man guarding Lee is already there, it leaves Poythress with little room to do much.

At the same time, Isaiah Briscoe has to assume the 3-role in the corner. Briscoe's game is dependent on his man coming out to guard him and he getting a step, driving to the hole and doing what he does. But once it's known he's not much of a three-point shooter (and he's not), they'll play off him - in which case, he'll drive anyway, or use up shot clock trying to figure his next move.

Okay, remove Lee and insert Willis. Now Poythress has the middle to himself. Willis goes to the corner and the defense has to spread out to make sure he's covered. (Calipari could occasionally post him, he has the size and the athleticism, but at least so far they haven't done that. He has become, though, an increasingly disruptive force on the offensive boards.)

Briscoe remains the 3, but he's freer now to roam the perimeter, an outlet option for Ulis and Murray.

Is it ideal? Is Poythress the ideal big man on a team with Final Four aspirations? No. Anthony Davis is the ideal big man on a team with Final Four aspirations. But, ultimately, you have to work with what you have.

And there will be times when Lee - all sinews and coiled springs - will be a better fit underneath. Just as, sometimes, Charles Matthews is a better fit for the situation than Willis or Briscoe. Or Mychal Mulder. That's what you have a bench for.

Or, let's not forget Skal, who is still as tall as he was when the season started and is still a much better outside shooter than Lee or Poythress or Matthews or Briscoe.

I don't want it to sound like I think Derek Willis has become the answer to everything, a heartwarming tale of the benchwarmer who becomes a star and leads his team to glory. Like anyone else, he'll have off-nights and leave a gaping hole in the best-laid plans.

And remember, too, there's that other end of the court to consider. Marcus Lee is Kentucky's best interior fit on defense. Both he and Skal are real shot-blocking threats and Lee, anyway, is a capable rebounder. But both are foul-prone and, as Cal has said a lot lately, why keep giving the other teams' free points?

Poythress is a pretty good shot-blocker on the run, trailing his man, and, by the way, so is Willis. There's no Anthony Davis or Nerlens Noel or Willie Cauley-Stein on this team, I'm not talking about the kind of rim-protecting shot-blocker that intimidates other teams' inside games. We don't have it this year. But I think we can get enough blocked shots out of Skal, Lee, Poythress and Willis to at least keep other teams honest.

All Willis has to do, to make this work, is to concentrate on the defensive end, know his assignments, know the situations, keep his hands up and react quickly. So far, he's done that - at least to Calipari's satisfaction.

Nor do I want this to sound like a Pollyanna treatise on the best national champion you never saw coming. It's still an underdog situation. Willis has only three good games under his belt - three games does not a career make.

But he gives the team a new combination of skills that might, just might, provide a whole new personality, a whole new way of winning games it had previously been losing.

The Kansas game will tell us a lot about whether we do, really, have a new winning personality. Or whether it's tweak-time, and back to the drawing board.