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October 16, 2013

Willis' dunk (or not) the talk of UK media day

A dunk? A hard layup? Something in between?

Derek Willis calls it simply "a play," and whatever term you applied, it was the talk of Kentucky basketball media day on Tuesday.

At last Thursday's practice, Willis gave a shot fake at the three-point line, drove past hard-charging teammate Julius Randle and elevated toward the rim.

What happened next is open to interpretation.

Depending on whom you believe, Willis either dunked over Randle and center Dakari Johnson, laid the ball in the rim through their outstretched arms or had his shot blocked off the backboard and through the net.

"That's a 10," guard Andrew Harrison said. "That was definitely a dunk."

Or not.

"That was not a dunk. At all," guard Jon Hood said. "Julius Randle blocked it off the backboard, and Dakari tipped it in -- inadvertently tipped it in -- trying to go for the block. Derek did not touch the rim. That was not a dunk. He will tell you it was a not a dunk. It was a good play. Ball went in, so it was a good play.

What's undisputed is that Willis -- the often-forgotten member of Kentucky's star-studded recruiting class -- finished at the rim against two bigger, stronger defenders.

"He didn't dunk on anybody," Randle said. "He finished. It was a good strong finish. Especially from a guy like Derek."

It's not a play Willis will make often.

But it's not the only surprising play he's made this fall.

"Derek Willis is going to be a really good player," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who called Willis' finish a dunk. "He's learning. He's creating good habits. It's -- you know, this team is going to be a hard team to steal minutes, but I'll tell you what, he's playing as well as anybody."

The 6-foot-9 Willis was a star at Bullitt East High School who committed early to Purdue, then reopened his recruitment and chose Kentucky over Louisville. He finished his senior season ranked the No. 115 player in the 2013 Rivals150 and the No. 25 power forward.

At one point, he was considerably higher in the rankings. He took a tumble after a subpar summer between his junior and senior seasons. But he's opened some eyes in preseason -- and not just with that dunk (or not a dunk).

"Derek's a great player," Randle said. "He can handle the ball. He can finish with both hands. He can really shoot the ball. He's not a player that's gonna to beat you off of strength, but he's a player that's gonna beat you with skill. Sometimes it can be really difficult guarding him, because his shot and his release is so quick."

And he made a quick move to finish at the rim against Randle and Johnson.

As for if it was a dunk...

"It was not," Johnson said. "It was not. It was a layup. It was a hard layup. It was a hard layup. He did not dunk on us. It rattled in. I'll give it to him, it rattled in."

Willis, who admits he doesn't like to talk about himself, wouldn't commit either way.

"As far as it goes, I'm just saying it was a play," Willis said. "It's just what happened. Just a play."


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