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Is seldom-used reserve Derek Willis setting precedent with late-night shooting session?

Derek Willis, who has played a total of 30 minutes this season including six Saturday against Vanderbilt, has impressed John Calipari with his late-night shooting sessions. (Photo by James Pennington)

Derek Willis, who has played a total of 30 minutes this season including six Saturday against Vanderbilt, has impressed John Calipari with his late-night shooting sessions. (Photo by James Pennington)


John Calipari’s job is to coach up his players and turn them into a cohesive one, a team with a singular vision and a singular approach to making the vision a reality. But he believes he can only do so much, that a group of players mostly under 20 aren’t going to develop 100 percent under a coach’s tutelage. Some of the development has to come from within, like a high-boy who won’t cut his hair despite Mom’s insistence until a girl at school says something, too.
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So when Calipari says in a news conference he wants players to take charge and start putting in extra hours at the gym like freshman Derek Willis has been doing as of late, he’s hoping word filters back somehow, because he can’t look his players in the eye and tell them to do it. But he’ll look print and television reporters in the face and tell them that his players need it but he can’t tell them to do it, so could you all?


The team most famously helped itself in 2011-12, which by the end of the season was playing so well it appeared it never needed the help in the first place. They called themselves, or Calipari called them, the Breakfast Club. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was putting in extra work on mornings during winter break, and a handful of teammates joined him.


“Why wouldn’t you want to do it by yourself? Because we’re not bowling, we’re not wrestling, and we’re not playing tennis,” Calipari said back then. The whole point had to do with teamwork as much as it did the extra conditioning, weightlifting or shooting.


On Monday, Calipari unveiled a never-told story about Tyreke Evans, his standout point guard in 2008-09, Calipari’s final year at Memphis. Calipari said Evans was struggling at the beginning of the year, so he took it upon himself to practice late into the night. Two or three nights a week, Calipari said, Evans would stay over at the practice facility and sleep on a couch in a player’s lounge.


“Guys have to be that committed and driven, and when you are, you don’t let go of the rope,” Calipari said Wednesday in telling the Evans story. “Someone comes in to take (the rope), you worked too hard. ‘I invested too mcuh. You’re not taking this from me. You ain’t taking this from me. I don’t care how hard you play, how much you foul. It doesn’t matter. You’re not taking it.’ ”


It’s unclear if a Breakfast Club-like movement will come from Willis’ late-night workouts, but Willis seemed committed in interviews Wednesday. He said he doesn’t need much sleep, so staying at the Joe Craft Center well past midnight doesn’t bother him. He’s only done it a couple of times, but struggling with his shot against Vanderbilt—0-for-2 on 3-point attempts in six minutes—may compel him to a program of every other night or maybe even every night, he said.


Beyond the utility of the sessions, Willis said it’s therapeutic for him.


“When you’re in the gym alone, it’s like going to church for some people or, like, talking to a counselor maybe,” he said. “It’s just good to, like, think of stuff and see how you’re doing. It’s really good peace of mind.”


So far, he’s been alone. Sometimes he’ll call a manager and ask them to rebound for him, or he’ll just chase the ball himself, by himself.


Considering his six minutes against Vanderbilt tied a season high—he’s only played 30 minutes all season—it’s hard to quantify how much his extra work has or will pay off if it’s contained to him. Calipari’s continued contention: What else is there to do other than class and basketball?


“You know, how much do you have to play video games? Really? ‘Got to get those two hours of video in,’ or how are you going to live? You’ve got to be on your phone three hours reading everything. I mean, that’s tough,” Calipari said. “I mean, I cannot give up my video games.”

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