Even when Kentucky has been at its best, the power forward position has been a question mark throughout the season.
It seemed as though neither Wenyen Gabriel nor Derek Willis wanted to take ownership of the four spot. John Calipari had to mix and match them in the starting line-up because neither guy would bring their A game on a consistent basis.
Gabriel looked completely lost at times early in the season. While his effort was never in question, he never looked comfortable running the offense or handling the ball and was routinely abused on defense.
Willis looked like a shell of the player we saw last season. He was missing wide open jump shots. With his confidence at a low point, his defense and his rebounding suffered. While we could at least see Wenyen giving it his all, the same could not be said for Derek.
The power forward position was like a big gaping hole on the court for the Kentucky Wildcats. The three guards were exceptional, and Bam Adebayo was improving in every game. But Gabriel and Willis could not step up their games enough in order for fans to have confidence in them or their team as Final Four contenders.
But things are turning around for both players. Gabriel no longer looks like a deer in headlights when the ball is in his hands. He is shooting and hitting jumpers. He is active around the basket. His rebounding numbers have improved dramatically. He is matching his effort with skill, and he’s become a force on the court. If he gets beat on defense, he’s learned to not quit and make up for it by blocking the shot.
Derek Willis is finding ways to score other than behind the arch. If that shot isn’t falling, he’s hitting a mid-range jumper from the baseline with regularity. He is working under the basket and even jamming home rim-shaking dunks. His defense has also improved and he, like Gabriel, is rebounding the ball with tenacity.
The duo has been averaging a double-double for the last couple of games. They are the perfect balance, and they provide match up problems for defenders. Both players are big enough to get shots around the rim, and both players are able to launch from mid-range or long distance. Derek provides a little more offensive firepower while Wenyen provides more rim protection and rebounding.
The ‘Cats sit as the number four team ranked in the country and have emerged as the favorites to win it all. De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Bam Adebayo are the stars, while Isaiah Briscoe is the leader that stirs the drink. Wenyen and Derek are vital to this team’s success because of all that they can provide both offensively and defensively.
Think about it, if one or both of them were hitting shots and grabbing boards like they are now, the ‘Cats certainly would not have lost at Louisville, and they probably would not have lost at home to UCLA. That’s how important they are to this team going forward if they want a chance at cutting down the nets.