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Derek Willis is the key to Kentucky Wildcats beating UCLA Bruins

The senior forward is the most important piece to the puzzle in regards to beating the Bruins.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Kentucky vs Arkansas Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Lonzo Ball vs De'Aaron Fox is the sexy match-up that has fans, members of the media, and NBA scouts salivating.

Malik Monk vs. Bryce Alford has the makings of a scoring blitzkrieg depending on which of those two comes to defend.

Bam Adebayo vs. Thomas Welsh is a contrast in big man styles that resulted in round one going to Welsh; but with Bam gaining confidence on offense, defense, and on the boards, one would reason that that matchup goes to the Kentucky Wildcats big man.

One of the main issues Kentucky dealt with during the first tilt with the UCLA Bruins was freshman power-forward TJ Leaf. Between Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis, the ‘Cats had no answer for him. The skilled forward rebounded the ball wall and did pretty much whatever he wanted offensively.

As a whole, the Wildcats were out-rebounded by UCLA 41-38, and the combination of Welsh and Leaf on the interior was too much for them to handle. At the time, Calipari was still trying to figure out his lineup, and Wenyen Gabriel factored more into the game plan than Derek Willis. That is no longer the case.

Willis is playing the best basketball of his career and his minutes have gone up from the time when his team faced UCLA in December. It is now to the point where it hurts the ‘Cats when Willis is on the bench because of his defense and his rebounding. John Calipari's confidence in Willis has skyrocketed to the point where he didn't leave the floor in the second half vs. Wichita State in the round of 32.

But this isn't all about his confidence in Willis. Wenyen Gabriel has regressed to the point where Cal cannot leave him on the floor more than a few minutes at a time. Add that to the fact Calipari has been forced to play Mychal Mulder at the four in relief for Willis over Gabriel, and Wenyen figures to be a non-factor going forward in the tournament.

Against UCLA, Cal cannot play Mulder at the four vs. Leaf. The combination of Leaf and Welsh in the interior with Mulder at power forward is a disaster waiting to happen. While I have confidence in Bam picking up on the switches and his ability to defend both Bruin big men around the perimeter, I have zero confidence in Mulder guarding either of them in the paint.

Because of the ineffectiveness of Gabriel and Mulder's shortcomings on defense, it is imperative that Willis stays in the game, out of foul trouble, and have one of the best games of his career. If something goes wrong with him, there aren't many options going forward.

Isaac Humphries could play sparingly with Bam guarding Leaf, but Welsh's ability to stretch the offense leaves Humphries at a disadvantage as far as being able to cover enough ground on defense.

A great deal has been asked of the senior this season, and even more, will be asked of him going forward even after UCLA. North Carolina, if they and the ‘Cats both advance, presents many of the same match-up issues as UCLA.

Willis has become a vital cog in this Wildcats team, and his contributions will mean more now than ever as game after game the season is on the line. This isn't about scoring, right now any scoring he can give is a bonus, this is about his defense, his shot blocking, and his rebounding. If he does those things, the offense will take care of itself.