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Basketball at all levels has put a greater emphasis on shot making over the past few years and that’s exactly what this 6-foot-9 forward Derek Willis brings to Kentucky.

The Wildcats were 14-3 last season when Willis made two or more three-point shots and he’ll again be asked to provide spacing and stretch opposing defenses from the four spot.

As usual, John Calipari has made headlines at Kentucky with a top-flight recruiting class which features several five-star prospects (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel), but Willis should again be a key cog in this team’s attack, and not just for his own production.

In order for the 6-10, 260-pound Adebayo to have the type of freshman year that many people expect him to have, he’s going to need someone to keep the defense honest and not allow the opponent to regularly hit him with double teams in the low post.

That’s where Willis will come in.

After playing a combined 114 minutes during the first two years of his college career, the Kentucky native made 53 three-point shots and shot 44.2 percent from three-point range last season as a junior while averaging 7.7 points and 4.0 rebounds.

Don’t be shocked if the Wildcats close out games with Willis and Adebayo up front with Fox, Monk, and Isaiah Briscoe on the perimeter.

Recently, Calipari publicly said that Willis won’t be suspended during the upcoming year for an offseason incident involving alcohol, which occurred in June.

091216derekwillis.jpgKentucky’s Derek Willis made 44.2 percent of his 3-pointers last season. USATSI

Mississippi State on the rise

The commitment of four-star point guard Nick Weatherspoon means the 2017-18 season will be one to watch in Starkville. In fact, Weatherspoon’s addition (he verbally committed on Sunday) positions Mississippi State alongside Auburn as Kentucky’s top SEC challengers in just year three of the Ben Howland era.

Last year, Howland put together the best recruiting class in school history, featuring eight players — Lamar Peters, Tyson Carter, Eli Wright, Mario Kegler, Xavian Stapleton (Louisiana Tech), E.J. Datcher, Schnider Herard and Abdul Ado — that will all have a year of collegiate experience under their belts when Weatherspoon arrives on campus in the fall of 2017.

Nick Weatherspoon’s brother, Quinndary, is currently a sophomore on Mississippi State and is a potential first-team All-SEC player this coming years after averaging 12.0 points and 4.7 rebounds last season as a freshman.

There’s no doubt that this young nucleus is going to take their lumps during the upcoming season, but as you study the makeup of the personnel in this program, it’s clear that Howland is using the same formula that he used when he took UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08.

With Peters, Carter and Nick Weatherspoon all in tow a year from now, Howland will be in position to play multiple point guards together at a time the same way he did when he had Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison and Russell Westbrook in Westwood.

This is the type of look that will minimize turnovers while maximizing ball pressure and ball security.

Everything is aligning for the Bulldogs to be one of the best teams in the SEC a year from now.

St. John’s set for a jump, too

Fall workouts are notorious for bringing unrealistic optimism to any college basketball program, but after taking in a Red Storm workout last week in Queens, it’s safe to stay that Chris Mullin’s second season as head coach of his alma mater should be significantly better than his first.

It’s extremely premature to start mentioning St. John’s as a potential candidate for a postseason berth, but it’s not premature to elaborate on the obvious — this program is loaded with high-major talent.

The highlight of last season’s 8-24 campaign was the fact that Mullin was able to groom two front-court building blocks in Kassoum Yakwe and Yankuba Sima, but now the focus will shift to the Red Storm’s strong bevy of newcomers on the perimeter.

Redshirt freshman Marcus LoVett should have the same type of impact for St. John’s that Maurice Watson had for Creighton last season, while freshmen Shamorie Ponds and Richard Freudenberg are both capable of being rotation players that have the ability to score in double-figures each time they take the floor.

JUCO wing Bashir Ahmed is more fullback than small forward and don’t be surprised if Mullin regularly uses him as a skilled four-man in an effort to maximize his mismatch ability and knack for getting to the free throw line.

No one is getting ahead of themselves here; there’s no guarantee that the Red Storm are going to execute in end-of-game situations or exude consistency, but the hardest part of rebuilding any program is improving the talent base and that’s already been done.

It’s more than realistic to think that St. John’s can double its win total from a year ago and then be in position to be a top-25 caliber team during the 2017-18 season with the additions of transfers Justin Simon (Arizona) and Marvin Clark (Michigan State) along with top-40 recruit Zach Brown (7-1, 260).

This and That

  • Jay Wright told CBS Sports that Villanova is hopeful to hear something regarding Omari Spellman’s eligibility by the end of September. The NCAA still has not cleared the five-star freshman, who did not play when the defending national champions took a foreign tour to Spain in August. Spellman is expected to replace Daniel Ochefu in the Wildcats’ starting lineup.
  • I’m hearing that Arizona will use 6-11 freshman Lauri Markkanen in spurts at center during the upcoming year, which will give the Wildcats a “Frank Kaminsky” type of look at the five. Markkanen doesn’t arrive in Tucson with the same type of cache as fellow newcomers Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins, but he’s likely more ready to immediately contribute at the college level.
  • Tom Izzo told CBS Sports that Nick Ward has been the biggest surprise thus far out of Michigan State’s recruiting class. The 6-8, 230-pound big man was a four-star recruit out of high school and could have a significant role up front for the Spartans behind veteran Gavin Schilling and UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter.
  • My biggest takeaway from the release of the Atlantic 10 schedule last week? The league didn’t do VCU any favors. The Rams open conference play with four of their first six games on the road and then are at Dayton and Rhode Island back-to-back late in the season. Brutality.
  • Dayton’s Kendall Pollard (knee) may not do full-contact work until October, Archie Miller told CBS Sports. The 6-6 forward did not play on the Flyers’ foreign tour of Spain in August and was hampered by the injury toward the end of last season. Pollard averaged 10.3 points and 4.9 rebounds in 2015-16.
  • Texas A&M freshman Deshawn Corprew has been ruled a non-qualifier by the NCAA, sources told CBS Sports.
  • Penn State, Pitt, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M will headline the 2017 Legends Classic at Barclays Center, according to sources.


Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Rothstein: Kentucky’s X-factor, rise of Mississippi State and St. Johns